Buster Keaton in “The Scarecrow”
After my disappointment with “Convict 13,” viewing “The Scarecrow” was like coming home. Just as the excellent “One Week” is a demonstration of the germ of Buster Keaton’s movie making skills, “The Scarecrow” ranks very high in his body of two reel comedies.
In “The Scarecrow” Keaton (the only actor with a screen credit) is paired again with the physically incongruous Joe Roberts as his Farmhand roommate. Keaton and the Farmhand are both in love with the Farmer’s Daughter (Sybil Seely), but she’s not impressed with either. After Buster is chased over hill and dale (and hay pile) by a dog (played by Luke, Fatty Arbuckle’s dog), he stumbles into scarecrow clothes and inadvertently wins the love of the girl. Fleeing the angry Farmer and Farmhand, they hop on a motorcycle, pick up a parson (played by Joe Keaton) and get married on the run.
If that sounds like a lot of action for a twenty minute two-reeler, it is. The “Scarecrow” is fast paced, composed mostly of the kind of chase sequences that are a hallmark of early slapstick comedies. But part of the physical genius of Keaton is the ability to incorporate inventive sight gags into the action itself. As he tears down the road on his motorcycle with his bride-t0-be jostling in the side car, the Parson asks for the wedding ring. The always unfazed Keaton casually plucks a nut off the machine. He twists it onto the Farmer’s Daughter’s finger and they’re married! “The Scarecrow” overflows with such moments.
But action aside, “The Scarecrow” features one of the funniest extended gags I think I’ve ever seen in a silent comedy. Despite the fast paced action, Keaton devotes a full five minutes of the total twenty minute dinner scene where we see an ingenious kitchen layout hidden in his one room house. Everything is something else – the bookshelf is a refrigerator, the table detaches and dumps scraps out of a trapdoor, the salt and butter shakers dangle from the ceiling. It’s a marvel of efficiency (and something we’ll see again in The Navigator).
As I’ve been reading some other reviews and comments on “The Scarecrow,” I find that many people use the adjective “Rube Goldbergian” to describe Buster’s cottage. The principal characteristic of the Goldbergian device is the it uses a lot of ingenuity and round about logic to solve a very simple problem. While I can see the comparison, in “The Scarecrow” the efficency of Buster’s cottage strikes me as a perfectly rational solution to a very real problem. As the title card tells us, “All the rooms in this house are in one room.” Sure you could leave the table about and put the salt shaker on it, but space is at a premium here. Maybe it’s just me. Having lived in New York City apartments where, indeed, all the rooms are in one room, Keaton’s kitchen set up strikes me as genius.
But I digress- the important point about the dinner scene in “The Scarecrow” is the demonstration of Keaton’s mechanical inventiveness and his overall approach to movie making. Keaton himself stated that if he hadn’t made movies he might have been an engineer. We see that kind of attention to detail and that kind of approach to problem solving all over the movies that Keaton wrote and directed (the best one’s anyway). It’s arguable that “The Engineer” is the character that Buster played his entire life, constantly creatively problem solving his way out of complex situations.
“The Scarecrow” is worth every second of the 20 minutes you need to watch it. I can’t seem to find a dvd collection for purchase that includes “The Scarecrow.” It is available all over the interwebs. You can download “The Scarecrow” from www.archive.org or stream on Google Video.