The Sunday Intertitle: The Keaton Gate

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THE PALEFACE is a very unusual Keaton short, because it takes two minutes and twenty seconds to set up its plot motor, before Buster enters the story.

Giving an unusually sympathetic portrait of American Indians, while still pandering to stereotypes and casting white actors in the main parts, the film establishes that the tribe at the story’s centre are being cheated out of their land. Big Chief Big Joe Roberts, who would persecute Buster for similarly arbitrary and impersonal reasons in OUR HOSPITALITY, makes a terrible threat ~

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(It seems the film’s original intertitles have not survived — this is obviously a reconstruction.)

Walter Kerr, in his majestic tome The Silent Clowns, then observes that the film then cut to a gate, and lingers on it slightly longer than we would normally expect — “In those few seconds, somehow, we see that the gate somehow looks like Keaton.”

This got me excited. I had just watched THE PALEFACE, but I had to look again to see if Kerr was right (he always is). Here is the Keaton gate.

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Important that Kerr used the word “somehow” as there’s no close resemblance. But the gate shares with Keaton a blank imperturbability. It is the centre of a drama, without knowing it. It is also rectangular and flat, and Keaton uses both those characteristics when he needs to. It is inexpressive, but somehow expresses something very strong and meaningful.

We get a closer view.

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A certain roughness, a certain unevenness, but also a linearity. Is Kerr overreaching?

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Enter the star. The straight rectangles of the front elevation of his porkpie hat form a horizontal rectangle to match the planks’ verticals. The obvious contrast with the door is Keaton’s soft vulnerability. He enters with supreme innocence — in a moment we will see he carries a butterfly net. If we had to choose, we would say that the door knows far more about what is at stake than Buster does.

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4 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: The Keaton Gate”

  1. So much of Beckett’s work seems influenced by Keaton — which we know it was. But it’s nice that it’s so apparent.

  2. I know comics tend to be rootless or literally homeless in shorts, but there was something about Keaton’s casual adaptation in “The Paleface.” A man with the leisure to hunt butterflies must come from somewhere, but after initial trials Buster is a leading member of the tribe. Later, forced to change clothes with an escaping oil exec, he looks like he’s going to saunter until he finds a Town to be a Man About. Wherever you put him, he’s going to stay put until the next random circumstance puts him somewhere else. The closing gag: Left undisturbed, he’ll simply remain in that kiss.

    In “The Balloonatic” he’s a man dropping some cash at an amusement park. When the balloon takes him aloft, he sets up ariel housekeeping until forced down. Then he seems inclined to settle in the woods until the balloon can go up again. There’s no sense of going back to civilization or anywhere else specific, even though he’s presumably a reasonably drive away (in the girl’s car).

    “The Blacksmith” has him simply jumping on a train with a girl (who, in the generally known cut, he knows only as a customer); cut to them inexplicably established as a middle-class family.

    In “The Boat”, Keaton & family are unconcerned about their house collapsing after they pull the boat through a too-narrow door; they simply proceed with their outing as if they don’t intend to come back.

    Chaplin’s place in society was usually clearly defined, even if The Tramp himself was a bit mysterious. When he crashes society he has a real identity — bum, waiter, tailor’s helper — he’s trying to escape. Once he got a grip on his glasses character, Lloyd was eternally upwardly mobile: a poor schlub after a job; a working stiff after a promotion; a beau after a girl above his station. While Keaton trafficked in those narratives as well, I don’t recall either Chaplin or Lloyd being quite so casually unrooted within a single film as Keaton was.

  3. The longer cut of The Blacksmith spends a little more time setting up its romance, but only a little.

    The opening intertitle of Keaton’s very first production, stating that he “came from nowhere… wasn’t going anywhere… got kicked off SOMEWHERE” seems to set the pace for his whole career as star.

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