After a slew of successful collaborations as foil for Fatty Arbuckle, The Blacksmith marks one of the first solo directing efforts for silent slapstick legend, Buster Keaton. The results are predictably charming (and charmingly predictable), with the added pleasure of watching the roots of Keaton hammering, smelting, and forging his own cinematic voice with the same gusto (but, thankfully, less clumsiness) as his onscreen earnest blacksmith. While it's a tad too assembly-line to compare with the most memorable or groundbreaking work of Keaton's career, The Blacksmith offers mirth aplenty, and is easily worth revisiting for fans and the unacquainted alike.
Keaton's film is noticeably sillier, and more predicated on frantic, zany slapstick than the slow-build gags and impassiveness that would become characteristic of 'ol' Stone Face' hitting a career stride. But comedic proceedings are handled with a well-oiled confidence, while the short's accessibility proves Keaton to be as comfortable with the conventions of the time as he would eventually be riffing on them with a deadpan chortle. Silent comedy is geared around strong visual gags, and Keaton shows a natural affinity for them, as the film is chock-full of hilarious bits: Keaton cooking his breakfast on a Blacksmith forge, getting his oil-covered hands all over a fancy car before smashing it to pieces in a fight with his characteristically enormous boss. And, in one of the decade's most salient tongue-in-cheek critiques of trendy, post-industrialization technological gimmicks, Keaton anchors a particularly dopey recurring visual gag - a woman sitting on a custom-built horse saddle springing up and down as she rides like an inglorious Jack-in-the-box - on a snarky marketing hook: "try our new 'shock-absorbing saddle!'" It takes a particularly smart artist to properly sell humour this stupid, and it's abundantly clear that Keaton, from his nimble, hapless, but adorably earnest performance, to his assured, clever direction, is the one for the job.
The Blacksmith, characteristically, doesn't reinvent the wheel, and is shy on character development in lieu of zaniness. But, its Tommy gun pacing and endless slew of gags do it justice, making it a riotously entertaining amuse-bouche, executed with slick confidence, that doesn't overstay its welcome. I had the pleasure of watching the short with live piano accompaniment in a restored early 20th century movie house. Hearing a packed audience of nearly 3000 - some old enough to have watched Keaton in theatres in his heyday; some young enough to be their great-grandchildren - all howling with laughter in unison, was unforgettably powerful, and spoke to the timelessness and universal accessibility of silent comedy, and the finely-tuned prowess of Keaton and The Blacksmith specifically. But watching at home, freely accessible on YouTube or Vimeo, should mar none of its hilarity, impeccable construction, or consummate, loveable timelessness.
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