The Premise: A man pitiably known only as “Friendless” (Buster Keaton) is down to his last buck in the big city, so he decides to head out west to become a cowboy. He manages to stumble into work at a cattle ranch, where he proves endlessly (and comically) inept at almost everything he tries. One day he sees a cow limping painfully because of a rock stuck in her hoof. When Friendless removes the rock, he is technically friendless no more. The cow, known as “Brown Eyes,” takes to Friendless like a puppy, and Friendless soon takes to her as well. Conflict arises when Friendless learns the ranch is about to sell off all their cattle for slaughter. Now Friendless must rescue Brown Eyes before it is too late.
Is It Good: Delightfully so. The General and Sherlock Jr. are generally the films that people throw in the ring when talking of Keaton’s genius – rightfully so, they’re both fantastic – but I think Go West deserves to be mentioned in the same breath. It lacks some of the more spectacular stunt-work featured in the other films, but laugh-for-laugh it might possibly be the funniest.
Go West is somewhat surprising in terms of how heart-warming it is. For those unfamiliar with Keaton’s work, he took a very Seinfeldian hug-free approach to comedy; a stark contrast to Chaplin’s love of schmaltz and romances. The bond Friendless forms with Brown Eyes, while clearly a joke for Keaton (it being a cow and all), is charming and adorable to the point where we start to legitimately care about their relationship. Once Friendless goes to great and silly lengths to protect Brown Eyes from getting branded, you’re hooked. This charm is helped along greatly by the phenomenal animal training on display. How they got Brown Eyes to do all the things they did, I am not sure, but the production was really able to sell that this dopey cow viewed Keaton as her parent figure. Cows aren’t really a cute animal. But this one is.
I don’t want to paint this as the Marley & Me of cow movies. While the film is more about character and light slapstick, and less about Keaton’s signature Jackie Chan acrobatic clown set pieces than normal, the film is not exactly lacking in this area either. The film builds up to a lengthy and hilarious cattle stampede through downtown Los Angeles that rivals any of Keaton’s most impressive action sequences.
Is It Worth A Look: For silent comedy fans it is a must, and certainly for anyone who already enjoys Keaton. For those not well versed in Keaton or silent comedy, it is as good a starting point as any. Because so many of Keaton’s scenes in the film are with a character who cannot speak, very little interpersonal detail is lost in the silent presentation. I think this is one of the reasons the Brown Eyes-Friendless relationship still works so well.
Random Anecdote: This is one of several films in which Keaton hid his friend Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle (whose career had been destroyed by a recent scandal) in a secret cameo. Here Arbuckle can be seen in drag as a woman in a department store that becomes infested by the wandering cattle.