Frames in Focus: The Paleface (Keaton,1922)

Buster Keaton is perhaps most remembered for his extraordinary stunt-based chases and moments of physical comedy, many of which involved leaps from moving vehicles, rotating houses and other physics-defying antics. This frame from The Paleface, however, demonstrates how brilliantly witty Keaton could be in those quieter moments between the bigger setpieces.

After being assimilated into a tribe of Native Americans early on in this two-reeler comedy, Buster later finds himself having to change his clothes with those of a businessman who holds him at gunpoint. This businessman, utilising Buster’s outfit as a disguise, wants to evict the Native American tribe from their land. Of course, this leads to a classic case of mistaken identity when the Native Americans believe that Buster is one of the businessmen trespassing on their land and begin firing arrows at him from afar. Walking along in his bumbling, oblivious way, Buster notices an arrow fall to the floor next to him. With an ingeniously comedic gesture, Buster raises his hand and turns his palm to the sky as if checking for rain. This simple movement effortlessly captures Keaton’s absurdist perspective of the world: a world in which weaponry can fall from the sky as a form of precipitation. It’s a quick joke, but as this frame shows, even the smallest gesture in the right context can be comedy gold.

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