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The Goat (1921)
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Remind Me

The Goat (1921)

Transformations abound in Keaton's movies. Even the titles can misdirect you. The Goat (1921) is not about a goat -- at least not a cloven-footed mammal. But then The Love Nest (1923) isn't about a love nest, The Navigator (1924) isn't about a navigator, The General (1926) isn't about a General, and while there is a butler in Battling Butler (1926), the butler isn't the one who battles.

The Goat is a two-reel study in deception and transformation, in the gap between reality and what gets filmed in the place of reality. They say the camera never lies, but in Buster's world this isn't so. This camera did lie, and it's lie sparks the creation of an alternate universe where innocent Buster is a wanted murderer haunted by his victim--ironically, the theme of a man wrongly accused of a monstrous crime would be Roscoe Arbuckle's real-life fate within the year.

The Goat is a miasma of misdirection--dummies for people, a live Indian for a dime store statue, a carpenter for a surgeon, a phone booth for an elevator. The mistaken identity that drives the plot--if "plot" is the right word, or should we say that drives the chase--is when luckless Buster is mistaken for Dead Shot Dan the escaped murderer.

Several sources claim that Dead Shot Dan was played by Malcolm St. Clair, the man who shares directing credit on this film with Buster. It makes for a good story--as if they were interchangeable after all. Film scholars have studied photographs of St. Clair and concluded that this was just another tall tale--which is too bad, since the film does feature Buster's other co-director from his silent shorts, Eddie Cline, playing the policeman by the telephone pole.

Buster had a high regard for St. Clair, whom he called "a great director," and placed alongside Frank Capra and Leo McCarey as examples of great comedy directors who learned their craft working for Mack Sennett. That's some high praise--especially considering that The Goat marked Keaton's first credited collaboration with Mal St. Clair, and one of his last--evidently Mal made a big impression on Buster.

Buster needed the services of a good co-director on something as ambitious and complicated as The Goat. Filming a two-reel-long chase sequence took its toll on the man--in one stunt fall Keaton missed his target and badly injured his hips, knees, and elbows. Keaton was out of commission for three days to recover--and then he was back at it, running and jumping and hanging off the sides of speeding cars.

Throughout this film, Buster is racing--but getting nowhere. It takes all his skill and speed and ingenuity just to stay in place, as the cogs of the universe click methodically around him. At times there is a bleak, fatalistic tone to all this--but at the same time, Buster's keyed into that mechanistic fate just well enough to spy the escape routes no one else sees. Speeding trains, amazing stunts, breathless chases, special effects, and armies of angry coppers--if you were in a crazy hurry and only had twenty minutes to fully digest the entirety of Buster Keaton's work, this might be the movie to watch.

Director: Buster Keaton, Mal St. Clair
Screenplay: Buster Keaton, Malcolm St. Clair
Cinematography: Elgin Lessley
Music: Robert Israel (1995 release)
Cast: Buster Keaton, Virginia Fox (Chief's daughter), Joe Roberts (Police Chief), Mal St. Clair (Dead Shot Dan), Edward F. Cline (Cop by telephone pole), Jean C. Havez (Bit part), Joe Keaton), Louise Keaton), Myra Keaton).
BW-27m.

by David Kalat
Buster Keaton and Charles Samuels, Buster Keaton: My Wonderful World of Slapstick.
Edward McPherson, Buster Keaton: Tempest in a Flat Hat.
Gabriella Oldham, Keaton's Silent Shorts: Beyond the Laughter.
Joanna E. Rapf and Gary L. Green, Buster Keaton: A Bio-Bibliography.
David Robinson, Buster Keaton.
Imogen Sara Smith, Buster Keaton: The Persistence of Comedy.
Kevin W. Sweeney, Buster Keaton Interviews.

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