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