The Sunday Intertitle: Frozen Expression


Forecasts hinted at snow so I watched Keaton’s THE FROZEN NORTH to get in the mood.

An odd one — Buster acts wildly out of character throughout, robbing a saloon, shooting a man and a woman dead, and then threatening another woman with rape. This is at least a bit funnier than it sounds — a dissolve shows Buster as his prospective victim sees him, in white Prussian uniform and monocle, as Buster Von Stroheim. So we’re in the realm of movie fantasy, not the realm of sex crime, which would be a crap realm to be in. But it’s all quite odd, since getting audience sympathy was normally something Keaton was careful about.


The ending reveals the whole story to have been a dream sequence, experienced by Buster after falling asleep at a movie show, which retroactively makes sense of everything and means you could then watch the film again without the same sense of nagging confusion/dissatisfaction.

A minor effort, then, but an interesting experiment, with Buster knowingly spoofing a lot of stock tough-guy poses. He doesn’t even wear his sawn-off porkpie hat until the end. In the shorts, Buster is usually consistent, though his role in life varies from vagabond to family man. In features, he could play a resourceful engineer or a feckless millionaire, with zero adjustment of performance style. This one has him not only acting out of character, but acting in a different style.

5 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Frozen Expression”

  1. The Frozen North also parodies William S. Hart and his films. As Buster said in an interview:

    “I tried to be Bill Hart in The Frozen North. He was a great actor but he got hammy at the end of his career. He always looked for the opportunity to cry, even with two guns strapped to his side out in the desert. If the girl turned and looked at another man, tears ran down his cheeks. I cried too, glycerin tears. Hart didn’t speak to me for a couple of years after I made The Frozen North.”

    Since Keaton sheds tears right before gunning down a man and woman, under the mistaken impression they were his wife and her lover, the burlesque turns Hart’s upright hero into a bungling monster.

    It’s also been claimed that the film was payback for Hart attacking Fatty Arbuckle, whose third trial was underway during the filming of The Frozen North. However, no one seems to have clinching evidence for that motive.

  2. If this is during the Arbuckle trial, the scene where Buster menaces a woman seems like further evidence of his tendency to ride roughshod over the presumed sensibilities of the public (see also his determination to climax Steamboat Bill Jnr with a flood, the anarchist’s bomb-throwing in Cops).

  3. You think you know a guy…!
    Thanks for pointing me towards this, I adored it. Man, it was hip. I sense it’s a silent comedy whose soundtrack could make or break it really. Watched silently on youtube the surrealist tone is ticklish from the very opening shot (although “surrealism” often just turns out to be a reference I don’t get). You really need a score that’s in on the joke (fortunately I was listening to THe BUnnya nd The Bll which fitted a treat!–XVI2t4o-Rskw8m2ZDT_46n&index=1)
    The golf-clubs! That beard! Those floppy skis!
    The burning rose!
    He is always breath-taking.

  4. Yes, lots of good bits there. Falling on his face while wearing guitars as snow shoes did it for me.

  5. Nonchalant Says:

    Being only slightly familiar with Hart, I didn’t ‘get’ Frozen North at first either. ‘Whaaaat? Our Buster murdering people? No, this cannot be!’

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