In Streaming Choices, I take a quick glance at the world of cinema available on Netflix Instant, Hulu Plus, Amazon Prime, and other streaming services.
Rating: Three and a half stars (out of five)
Buster Keaton was a master of understatement. Everything he did, he kept his face as close to straight as possible. His facial acting was measured as a matter of degrees, unlike his chief contemporaries, Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin. Their goofball plasticity added to their charm, whereas Keaton gained his by being the king of deadpan without having to actually speak.
Keaton both plays up and subverts that deadpan quality in his short The Frozen North, which he co-directed with Eddie Cline in 1922, right before his run of classic feature comedies throughout the rest of the ’20s.
At the “last stop on the subway,” a snowed in backwater town in the middle of nowhere, Keaton proves himself to be a rather malicious fellow unlike any other in his oeuvre. His bumbling remains, however, as he attempts to rob a casino using a cardboard cutout of the town’s public enemy number one as his wingman.
He barely escapes from his bungled robbery and heads home to see a man and woman canoodling on the couch. In the most darkly comedic turn of any Keaton film, he impulsively shoots them both before a dialogue card appears. “I’ve made a mistake. This isn’t my house, or my wife,” as he jolts out the door.
Let’s examine that for a second. Buster Keaton, whose cinematic career revolved around stunts and derring do in service of finding safety — think the hurricane sequence in Steamboat Bill Jr. or his attempts to save his beloved in The General — shoots two people in cold blood. And he brushes it off with a wickedly funny line about mistaken identity, heightened further by his utter dismissal of moral culpability. The minimalist facial acting remains the same, but this time, he shades it with just enough of a hint of mischievous evil to unsettle the audience.
Another tool in his repertoire here is the setting. Until his later big budget epics, Keaton was content to use the greater Los Angeles area for all it was worth in his shorts and early features. They were often dusty, rocky pictures, but here the snow is stark. It pops at the audience. It makes them think, “Buster Keaton doesn’t belong here.” But there he is all the same, using a cane that keeps sinking in the snow, being flummoxed at how to cut into the lake for ice fishing, being the victim of a rooftop avalanche.
Keaton’s patented befuddlement remains throughout the short as his and Cline’s camera stays static and nonjudgemental despite the horrific things his character does to others. This is all for a reason. We’re supposed to be concerned about what’s happened to the nice guy with the stone face who makes those wonderful falls.
The short’s punchline ending both reassures the audience of Keaton’s general “good guy”-ness while hinting at the darkness inside all people. It’s a great conceit only diminished by the film’s incomplete nature, which makes some of the middle parts a bit confusing. We don’t get the full story of his numerous relationships with the town’s women, the chases feel a little disjointed, and the stunts lack much of the kooky inventiveness of his later work; save for a great sequence of tug-of-war with an Inuit ice fisherman. Overall, though, the greatness outweighs the bad (which isn’t Keaton’s fault, anyway), and The Frozen North is a speedy 17-minute romp that offers more than just completism for his greatest era.
The Frozen North is available on YouTube, embedded below.