The Blacksmith (1922)
Another two-reel short from Buster Keaton that emphasizes his ability to come up with a seemingly endless string of gags around a given them, this movie is surprisingly plotless, even compared to his early work with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Enjoy the laughs, but don’t look for a lot of coherence, from this one.
The opening introduces Buster, a blacksmith’s assistant, in poetic intertitles that contrast with the images shown. We are told that the “village smithy” stands under a “spreading chestnut tree,” to see Buster posing beneath a remarkably tall palm tree – essentially a pole with a tuft on top. A line about “the muscles of his brawny arms” is followed by Keaton flexing, then popping the balloon that swells beneath his sleeve. When children look in at him doing his work, the boss (Joe Roberts) comes along and chases them off. He then finds Buster is using the smithy flame to heat up his breakfast. Using tongs to hold the plate, Buster tries to pretend to be working by hammering at the anvil, but shatters the plate and ruins his meal. Then, Buster does several pratfalls involving a hot horseshoe, fresh out of the forge. He burns each of his feet in turn and then his behind, putting each into the bucket of water to cool them and, of course, producing steam. Soon, his boss tells him to bring a large hammer out to the front, where he is working on a wagon wheel. He brings two, but they disappear, sucked up to the huge horseshoe that serves as their shop’s sign – in fact a huge horseshoe magnet. When the wagon wheel disappears the same way, the larger man begins to abuse him, which attracts the attention of the local sheriff, who loses his star and gun in the same way. Now the sheriff calls over his four deputies and they take the blacksmith into custody, with considerable difficulty as the huge man fights back. Buster inadvertently helps them when he sees where ll of the missing bits of metal have gone and climbs up to the magnet, bring it and all of its gains down upon his boss and stunning him.
Now Buster is left alone, in charge of the business. Determined to make good, he does his best to help the customers, often with unintended results. A lady rider (Virginia Fox) brings her horse in for shoes, and Buster does a routine in which he reproduces a shoe store for the horse. He climbs up a ladder that rolls past row after row of shoe boxes, and brings down various selections to show the horse, which indicates by flicking its head that it doesn’t like his choices. Then, he goes to a glass display case and shows the horse a pair of horseshoes with elaborate ribbons that go around the horse’s foot. This time the horse is pleased when it sees the hoof in the mirror, and Buster ties the new shoes on. Buster now parks the white horse near an old car he is working on and gets to work, waiting for Fox to return. He keeps putting his greasy hands on the horse’s side as he goes, and eventually one side of the horse is covered in hand prints, When Virginia returns, he brings the horse out and she sees only the other side, mounting up and riding off unaware of the mess he’s made. Another female customer brings her horse in and indicates that the ride is too bumpy, so Buster brings out a new invention – a horse shock-absorber, which is a large spring-like contraption to put on top of the saddle. It makes mounting harder, because it is much higher, but the customer is happy and rides off.
Buster goes back to work on the car, and a child comes in with a helium balloon, standing very close as Buster works. Buster uses the balloon as a jack, (somehow it has enough lift to hoist the car when he removes a wheel) and the child pulls out a slingshot and pops it, causing the car to crash down through the floorboards, and resulting in another pratfall for Keaton. Another customer pulls his nice white car into the shop and asks Keaton to do some work on the fender, protesting when Keaton gets the slightest smudge of oil on it. Once he leaves, Keaton proceeds to spill oil all over the car and dent the hood when he uses it as a base to hammer a bent nail to try to straighten it. Soon, he is swinging a huge hammer and breaking windows on the car, and then he lights a welding torch and burns the side as well. Now, he uses as pulley to lift the engine out of the old car, and it bashes into the newer one repeatedly before Buster is able to lower it to the floor. The horse with the shock-absorber returns without a rider, and Buster puts on his coat, evidently planning to sneak out the back, when Joe Roberts returns through the back door and sees all the mayhem Buster has caused. An epic battle/chase begins as Roberts hurls hammers, engines, anvils, and other heavy objects, most of them hitting the wrecked new car, some of them hitting Keaton as well. Keaton hoists his boss to the ceiling using the pulley, then places the spring-loaded horse beneath him and cuts the rope. Roberts manages to move away from that spot by hanging onto a beam, but falls through the roof of the new car. At that moment, the customer returns for his car, and the female customer comes in bearing a club, having evidently been thrown by her spring-loaded horse. Keaton tries to steal a horse and buggy, not realizing that the horse isn’t hitched up, and is thrown onto the railroad tracks, where his foot gets caught.
Now Virginia arrives at home, showing her parents her befouled horse, and her mother screams, causing the horse to bolt. Keaton, slowly trying to free his foot, is nearly hit by a train that stops at the last moment, and runs away when he sees how close it was. Virginia’s horse bolts past and he somehow catches her and the two fly backward into a haystack. To show her appreciation for saving her, Virginia gives Buster a huge wad of bills, which he disdainfully throws down into the hay. She walks off, he digs it back out and gives it back to her, and then moves a ring from her right finger to her left, and the two of them run off together. All of the angry citizens show up in a mob, but Buster pulls on a rope and inadvertently dumps water from a water tower on them all, knocking them over. Virginia and Buster run over and jump aboard the back of a departing train, riding off together to whatever fate awaits them.
This movie has little interest in telling a story, it really is just one gag after another, strung together by the flimsiest of threads. It actually works to make the ending, in which Buster and Virginia are suddenly an item, funnier, seeming to comment on the various unlikely romances of Buster’s and other two-reel films. Keaton usually worked with a co-director, for most of the movies I’ve been reviewing lately this was Edward F. Cline, but for this one it was Malcolm St. Clair, who had worked for Mack Sennett and would later direct sound features with Laurel & Hardy. I don’t know much about how this shoot went, because he didn’t work with Keaton a lot after this, but they remained friends, to the point where they had hoped to work together on a Buster Keaton television series in the 1950s, before St. Clair’s death.
Keaton’s acting style is decidedly established at this point, It’s only been a few years since the emotive affectations of “Oh Doctor” and some of the other experimental works, but now the “old stone face” is solid throughout. One of the best moments of this picture comes when he has Joe Roberts dangling in mid-air and is cutting the rope. He does it with studied coolness, casually cutting a couple of strands at a time, in no hurry at all. This adds to the tension – will the boss manage to climb down before he finishes? – and also adds to the audience’s enjoyment of his revenge, in an almost sadistic fashion by putting him in power over the larger bully. The sequence with the horse shoe-store sale must have taken a good deal of time (and a well-trained horse!), but is another example of how far Keaton was willing to go for a gag, and the result is memorable. There are any number of other quickie gags in this movie that this review hasn’t had time to cover. See it for yourself and enjoy the silliness.
Director: Buster Keaton, Malcolm St. Clair
Camera: Elgin Lessley
Starring: Buster Keaton, Joe Roberts, Virginia Fox
Run Time: 23 Min
You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).