The resemblance between Buster Keaton and William S. Hart is not lost on the Seven Chances auteur, who here doesn’t so much burlesque as crystallize the essential solitude of frontier pioneers. Keaton’s "Friendless" is the existential tenderfoot, his belongings all fit on a bed and are traded for a loaf of bread and salami which keep dwindling over the course of the voyage. Trampled by city crowds, he remembers Horace Greeley’s titular advice and hops a train to turn cowboy. The West is an endless desert pan studded with cacti and inhabited by hordes of unfriendly critters -- and a friendly one, "Brown Eyes" the oddly expressive cow. The mutual respect of kindred loners is forged when the novice cowhand removes a stone from her hoof, and the bovine heroine saves him from being gored (horns are attached to the camera to give the bull’s POV as it pounds toward the hero’s backside); the race is to rescue Brown Eyes after she’s corralled, along with the rest of the herd, into a train headed to the abattoir. Keaton’s transcendent comedy of inadequacy includes the tiny pistol that gets lost inside the protagonist’s holster and the oversized horse that waits with Balthazar’s patience as the runty cowboy climbs onto the saddle by way of a rope ladder. The late-to-the-table running gag is reversed richly, but Keaton’s grand moment is a two-pronged parody of The Virginian and Broken Blossoms, in which The Great Stone Face fails to produce a smirk (a sublime close-up) yet still takes over a rival gunfighter’s trigger finger. The serene outpour of surrealism in the climax tips its hat to Sennett with dozens of steers wreaking unruffled havoc in the streets of Los Angeles, wandering in and out of barbershops, department stores and Turkish baths -- change the angle and you practically have Imamura’s Pigs and Battleships, though nothing beats Keaton in his red Mephistopheles costume, leading the stampede to the stockyards and the joke on romantic expectations to the matchless punchline. With Kathleen Myers, Howard Truesdale and Ray Thompson. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce