Short of the Month: The Frozen North (dir. Buster Keaton and Eddie Cline, 1922)

The Frozen North rarely appears on any Buster Keaton fan’s favorites list, yet it remains one of his most compelling short films. It’s a pitch black parody of Klondike melodramas and William S. Hart westerns, with a dash of Von Stroheim’s “the man you love to hate” for good measure. Keaton drops his usual persona to play a murdering, slimy villain– a very, very inept villain, but still a covetous murderer out to seduce another man’s wife.

Discussion of The Frozen North is often dominated by the context of the Roscoe Arbuckle manslaughter trials which dominated the papers in 1922. The usual story goes that William S. Hart insinuated Arbuckle was guilty in interviews with the press and that Keaton mercilessly mocked Hart’s onscreen persona as vengeance for the honor of his closest friend. In his autobiography My Wonderful World of Slapstick, Keaton stated his aims were more benign. He claimed parody was his favorite form of comedy and that his kidding Hart came from a place of admiration.

William S. Hart, the “Good Bad Man.” Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Hart’s persona was often described as “the Good Bad Man,” essentially an anti-hero redeemed by the final reel. For example, in The Toll Gate, Hart is a cold-blooded outlaw out for revenge against the partner-in-crime that betrayed him. He’s so vengeful that he considers taking his rage out on the traitor’s innocent wife, but by the end, he redeems himself, nobly gives up his love interest, and rides off alone. This is a far cry from Keaton’s nasty character here, who has no redeeming qualities.

The great limitation of parody is that the audience needs to be in on the joke. When you’re not familiar with Bill Hart or the Klondike melodramas popular when Keaton was making the film, some of the gags seem odd or random. Luckily, The Frozen North possesses a dreamlike surrealism that slightly accommodates these limitations. The strangeness of a cowboy emerging from a subway in a frozen landscape has its own weird charm, regardless of the proper context.

The “it was all a dream” ending can be seen as a cop-out, though it offers an interesting prefiguration of the frame story of Sherlock Jr, in which Keaton plays a projectionist who dreams himself into the movies. That film’s spoof qualities are more sophisticated than The Frozen North, with the characters in the “real” world taking on “reel” personas: the projectionist fashions himself after hyper-competent movie detectives and his love interest dresses like Mary Pickford. We can only assume the dreamer awaking in the theater at the close of The Frozen North is the usual hapless, porkpie hat-wearing version of Buster we’re used to seeing in Keaton’s more standard films, though what his dreaming about being a villain says about him is anyone’s guess.

You can easily get psychoanalytical– the usual placid Buster character dreams he is an aggressive amalgamation of William S. Hart and Erich von Stroheim, suggesting that the movies give us an outlet for our darker fantasies, the ones we suppress in order to seem “normal”… but I doubt this was Keaton’s intention. Given his bemused reaction to the academics who embraced his work in the 50s and 60s, it might be best to say he wanted to assure the audience that this short was only a nightmarish lark.

Sources:

Keaton’s Silent Shorts: Beyond the Laughter by Gabriella Oldham

My Wonderful World of Slapstick by Buster Keaton

One thought on “Short of the Month: The Frozen North (dir. Buster Keaton and Eddie Cline, 1922)

  1. My Dad is a big Keaton and Arbuckle fan. He always felt Arbuckle was unfairly treated by the public and press. I had no idea William S. Hart was one of the people who wrongly accused Arbuckle, I can totally see why Keaton would want to really scorch his onscreen persona.

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