Here’s another post in honor of Native American Heritage Month.
It’s not surprising Native American Indians would be a recurring theme in Buster Keaton’s comedy. He was born in Piqua, Kansas, not far from Oklahoma (which was then still officially called “Indian Territory”). His parents and grandparents toured the midwest in medicine shows. So one should not be thunderstruck or “knocked over with a feather” to find western or frontier themes in his work, such as appear in his feature Go West (1925) or in his 1922 short The Frozen North.
The most relevant film here though is The Paleface, a 1922 short in which he plays an innocent butterfly collector who accidentally walks onto an Indian reservation whose inmates have vowed to “kill the next white man [they] see”. The natives are treated sympathetically (they are being swindled by unscrupulous agents, a common western theme) though they are a bit on the “how, ugh” side and want nothing more than to burn Buster to a crisp at the stake. In the end he saves the day and as his reward picks out a pretty “Indian squab” of his own, kissing her passionately on the lips…for two years! This is racially progressive stuff for 1922, so bravo, Buster.
In the sound era, Buster would don eagle feathers himself a couple of times in a couple of odd but notable projects. With his wide, open face and famous stoic placidity it was kind of genius for Buster to play Indians, although silent ones would have been better. Both of these roles are written in that broken Hollywood Indian pidgin English, and Buster isn’t exactly a dialect comedian so he doesn’t carry it off so well.
In a 1940 adaptation of the comic strip Li’l Abner he plays Lonesome Polecat, though he’s dressed more like a caveman. I really love it , but I’m warning you — it’s a really weird movie.
And in 1962 he teamed up with Ernie Kovacs for a sit-com pilot called Medicine Man, in which Buster played the war-bonneted sidekick to Kovacs’ snake oil salesman. Now, on paper, I don’t mind declaring to you that that’s GENIUS. But I have seen this show; it’s in the collection at the Paley Center, and I’m sad to inform you that it’s a stinkeroo. Badly written and a waste of two of the 20th century’s greatest comic geniuses. But if you want to see for yourself, find out more here: http://www.paleycenter.org/
For more on the history of silent and slapstick comedy don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc
For more on the history of show business consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.