Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Happy Canada Day

Today, Silent Volume celebrates 142 years of officially-Canadian culture. As a Canadian, I’m not always sure what that is, but it seems the polite thing to do.

Canadians can be justly proud of their many talents, but two tend to stand out: our capacity to produce great comedy, and our capacity to withstand really, really lousy weather. Let me direct your attention to a little known film that honours both.

The Frozen North (1922) is one of many Buster Keaton shorts, but for fans of the man, it always stands out. For in this one, Buster’s the villain.

Buster plays ‘A Bad Man,’ who arrives in Canada’s Yukon Territory to mine for gold. In the first four minutes of the film, he holds up a saloon, commits two murders, and dances a waltz with his wife’s (apparent) corpse. Beyond profit and vengeance, the Bad Man’s only interest is a nearby prospector’s wife, who looms over him by nearly a foot.

Keaton could do anything with a camera; a snow-covered prospecting town meant limitless possibilities. His puny villain spends the film soaked, encased in snow, or about to be. Igloos, ice fishing holes, snowmobiles and dog sleds set up strange gags and further beatdowns.

The Frozen North also happens to be a parody of cowboy star William S. Hart’s then-popular moral dramas, but you don’t need to be in on the joke. Keaton’s comedy, as always, stands on its own. And if you love his work as much as I do, the novelty of seeing him as the sneering heel just doubles the fun.

Where to find The Frozen North:
Kino International’s The Art of Buster Keaton box set (also available as individual discs) packages The Frozen North with another short, The Haunted House (1921) and Keaton’s 1926 feature, Battling Butler. Look for it here.

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