Directed by Buster Keaton and Mal St. Clair
Release Date: July 21, 1922
Total Running Time: 25 minutes
As the assistant blacksmith, Buster has a unique approach to serving customers, leaving his fingerprints all over his work.
Buster Keaton: Assistant Blacksmith
Joe Roberts: Blacksmith
Virginia Fox: Girl with a White Horse
Onyx: White Horse
Several versions of The Blacksmith exist, because Keaton released a version he was not entirely happy with, so he withdrew it, remade it, and released it again.
“That Dud” — New Discoveries About The Blacksmith Shake Up Previous Timeline
By David B. Pearson (Published by The Keaton Chronicle — Fall, 2013)
The recent stunning discovery by Fernando Peña in Argentina of a previously unknown version of The Blacksmith in a 9.5mm print turned out to be a far bigger find than previously thought. Instead of simply being a mysterious new alternate print of The Blacksmith, it appears that it’s actually something quite different. This is no alternate. The Peña print is actually the original general release of The Blacksmith that was distributed to cinemas in July of 1922.
Meanwhile, the “common” print of The Blacksmith—what everybody has assumed to be the general release print for more than 50 years—has turned out to be an earlier version filmed a year before that release, in July 1921. This version was apparently panned by preview audiences in September-October of 1921 and mostly reshot for the July 1922 release.
The Peña discovery led Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films in Paris to search his own archive and find even more new material, this time on 35mm film, which Bromberg then premiered at Il Giornate del Cinema Muto (commonly known as the Pordenone silent film festival) in Pordenone, Italy, this past October.
The total differing material in the two prints adds up to some seven minutes of film (five minutes of the first reel and two minutes of the second). Essentially, it’s about a third of the material that differs from one version to the other.
Interestingly, the version Buster seems to have held on to was the earlier, awed print, perhaps for nostalgic reasons. But because of the way the film was rediscovered, that version has long been presumed to have been the only way the film was ultimately seen by 1920s audiences. “The version of The Blacksmith known in America today was discovered by James Mason in Keaton’s private vault,” writes historical film analyst John Bengtson, author of Keaton location book Silent Echoes (1999) and regular columnist for The Keaton Chronicle. “This ‘American’ version appears to date from mid-to-late 1921 and does not contain any of the ‘Peña’ scenes filmed in 1922.”
Bengtson continues, “Thus, it is plausible Buster’s privately held 1921 vault print was not intended for wide distribution, and that the ‘Peña’ version, containing numerous subsequently filmed gags, was the ‘official’ version widely released in July 1922. It is likely that the Kino-Lorber version available in America: (a) comes from Keaton’s essentially “intact” vault print filmed in mid-to-late 1921, and that (b) a couple of odd shots filmed much later were inserted in the Kino-Lorber version as part of the restoration, and that therefore (c) these ‘later’ insert shots do not change when the original Keaton vault print was filmed.”
The important thing to note here is what it tells us about Keaton’s method of creating a film: He was unwilling to settle for second best, and in this case went to considerable time, trouble and expense to reshoot a film that had already been released to theaters.
In the wake of the Peña-Bromberg find, a research trail has been created by Buster Files Project researchers Valerie Billingsley and Susan Buhrman, as well as independent research by historian Greg Rickman that has caused a major shakeup in the conventional wisdom of the exact production order of other First National shorts—revising previous beliefs that have stood for more than a third of a century.
An examination of the paper trail for various contemporary newspaper accounts, con rmed by surviving production still codes, reveal that the original shooting of The Blacksmith was not in February of 1922, as previously believed, but in July 1921, a full year before The Blacksmith’s official release. Various newspaper blurbs, as early as the August 18, 1921, issue of the Daily Saratogian, and other newspapers in September, confirm that the earliest version of The Blacksmith had completed filming.
It also appears that, following a worker’s strike that may have affected the shooting schedule for The Blacksmith during its production, the film was originally previewed as early as late September 1921. Buster went back and apparently reshot at least one-third of The Blacksmith sometime between late November 1921 and January 1922—sometime either immediately before, during or after the making of Cops—and even more tinkering with the film may have continued as late as April 1922.
So why did Buster go to all this trouble for a film that was essentially already in the can?
Because, it was, as Buster called it, “that dud.”
Others apparently agreed with him. The opinion published in Photoplay’s January 1922 issue of The Blacksmith preview was brutal: “It’s a sad day when one of our comedians fails us. Buster Keaton is guilty this month. There is hardly a smile in his latest comedy, if such can be called. The situations are forced and his work laborious. His scenario writer should consult Webster and discover that the words silly and funny are not synonymous.”
So Buster, finishing up The Paleface, soon went back to reshooting The Blacksmith on still standing sets, mainly with the services of Joe Roberts, Onyx the horse, and Virginia Fox, all of whom were available during the making of Cops.
Further research from the trade newspaper Film Daily shows that My Wife’s Relations, previously thought to have been filmed in April, was actually shot in February. And likewise, Film Daily from April 1922 suggests that The Electric House was in production then, rather than what was previously thought to have been in August. With all other months tied up, it quickly becomes apparent that sometime around New Year’s of 1922 is the only viable time when Buster could have reshot The Blacksmith.
Therefore, based on this new knowledge, brought about by the Peña discovery, a new, more correct production order of the First National Keaton shorts has emerged (although this is, of course, subject to change if other information rolls in):
1. The Play House (June 1921)
2a. The Blacksmith first shooting (July 1921)
3. The Boat (August 1921)
4. The Paleface (late October-November 1921) 5. Cops (late November-December 1921) 2b(?).The Blacksmith re-shooting (January 1922) 6. My Wife’s Relations (February 1922)
7. The Frozen North (March 1922) 2c(?).Possible further retakes for The Blacksmith (early April 1922)
8. The Electric House (April-May 1922)
9. Day Dreams (late May-early July 1922) 10. The Love Nest (August-September 1922) 11. The Balloonatic (October-November 1922)
This revision of production dates supersedes the long-standing beliefs about this subject found in The Film Career of Buster Keaton by George Wead and George Lellis (1977), a book considered the cornerstone to serious Keaton scholarship.
George Wead, a longtime Damfino, said of the new discoveries: “Wonderful. We have new facts on Blacksmith that show us—not Keaton the artist, or Keaton the cute, or Keaton the silent master, but Keaton the carpenter. He wanted to join pieces together well, and the new footage gives us a glimpse of what went on when things didn’t go well. This is film scholarship at its best.”
Silent Comedy historian, film preservationist, and published author David B. Pearson is also an award-winning New Orleans-based print designer.
The Blacksmith is generally regarded as Keaton's weakest short. It begins with two kids watching as Keaton pumps the bellows and hammers a horseshoe inside a Blacksmith shop. Then his boss (Joe Roberts) arrives at work, shoving the kids out of the way. He tells them to beat it.
Keaton fries a panful of eggs on his furnace as Roberts puts on his apron. Keaton plates them, salts them, then sees Roberts. He puts the plate on his anvil and smashes it with his hammer.
While Roberts looks over a wagon, Keaton shapes horseshoes. He compares a hot shoe to his own, burning his left foot. After sticking the injured foot in the cooling tub, he steps back onto the hot shoe with his right foot. He puts that into the tub. He falls down on the shoe and sits in the tub. Smoke rises.
As he works on a wheel, Roberts tells Keaton to bring over a hammer. Keaton does but the tool disappears. The magnet above the door has pulled it up. Roberts again asks for a hammer, so Keaton brings another. It gets similarly lifted. Roberts starts getting belligerent, and he goes in to get the tool himself. The magnet attracts the wheel. Keaton looks for it. When Roberts returns he gets angry and grabs Keaton by the neck. They argue.
The sheriff comes over and says that big guys shouldn't beat up little guys. His badge joins the rest of the metal on the magnet, so Roberts isn't impressed. The gun that the sheriff pulls out travels up, too. The lawman blows a whistle and four deputies come over; a fight begins. Keaton, who had walked away, notices the magnet. After Roberts knocks all five officers down, Keaton pushes everything off of the magnet. The stuff and Keaton land on Roberts, knocking him cold. The sheriff and his men handcuff Roberts; who wakes up and they haul him off to the jail.
Keaton returns to the forge. His watch has stopped, so he puts it into the furnace.
A rich woman (Virginia Fox) rides her white horse in, leaving it to be shod. Like a shoe salesman for humans, Keaton describes a style to the horse (she nods), pulls one out of a box (which the horse rejects) pulls out another (another rejection, with a look at the display), tries a sandal style on the horse, and, with a mirror, gets the horse's approval.
After he fits her with four sandals, he curries her, powders her nose, and ties her next to a car so that the rich woman can up pick the horse later. He walks out to his car and, after lighting a cigar with a broken car-lighter, goes into town. Meanwhile, Roberts has just broken out of jail.
Buster drives, but his steering-wheel is off its rod, and he plows straight over the strolling Roberts. A chase ensues, in which Keaton evades Joe using a pulley-system in the blacksmith shop and an advertisement for the “Senseless Six” automobile nearby. They only stop during all of this to look at the shadow of a pretty woman undressing behind a window. Buster is finally carried away by a truck, knocking down another civilian as he gets off.
Keaton and Roberts chase each other around a very small Chamber of Commerce building, while Keaton simultaneously tries proposing to the rich woman, now in the same place. Keaton locks Roberts in the Chamber of Commerce building, but the woman’s father prevents Keaton from proposing, and Keaton heads back to the shop.
A saddlesore woman drags her brown horse in. Keaton has a solution: a saddle shock absorber (it looks like a saddle atop two brackets < >). He installs it on her horse and helps her climb upon it with a ladder. So goes away happy.
Keaton takes his watch out of the fire. With a few taps of his hammer it works again.
The woman rides on her saddle shock absorber.
Keaton gets back to work on the car. A kid with a balloon wanders by. Keaton uses the balloon to hold up the car after he removes the wheel, but the kid pops it with a rock from his slingshot. The car crashes through the floor and the kid runs away. Keaton tries to pick up the ruined car but he can't.
The woman continues to ride on the shock absorber.
A man with a white car pulls into the shop. It has a broken bumper. The dandy gets upset when Keaton touches his car with a dirty hand. He leaves. The car collects handprints, a crankcase full of oil slops in and around it, windows get broken, and a blowtorch scorches it. Finally, a motor suspended next to it swings into it several times.
Roberts finally frees himself from the Chamber of Commerce building, while the saddlesore woman storms up the road without her horse, carrying a stick.
The brown horse returns to the shop, still wearing the shock absorber. Keaton takes one look and trades his apron for his jacket and hat.
Roberts also comes back to the shop, rolling up his sleeves. At the sight of him, Keaton's hat flips over. He backs away, behind the white car. Roberts picks up a hammer and throws it at him. He misses, smashing the headlight. Another hammer goes through the side windows. Then Roberts picks up the motor and throws it, wreaking the grille. Finally Roberts removes the side door and tries to hit Keaton over the head, but Keaton goes through the hole where the window once was. Keaton uses the engine hoist to suspend Roberts from the ceiling. He calls the brown horse in, positions in beneath Roberts, and tries to cut the rope. However, Roberts has maneuvered himself over the car. When the rope finally gives, Roberts crashes through the roof.
The white car owner comes in and Keaton sees him. Then the shock-absorber woman, brandishing her stick, arrives. First Keaton hides behind the forge, then he runs out to a waiting horse and buggy. He grabs the reins and tells the horse to go, but the animal isn't attached to the vehicle, so Keaton gets dragged down the road and onto the railroad tracks. His foot gets stuck in the tracks.
Fox rides past a manhole. An explosion beneath the street causes her horse to rear.
Keaton is still stuck. A train approaches. It stops right before it hits him. He's so busy trying to untie his shoe that he doesn't notice it until the two engineers join him. When he sees it, he runs in fright.
Fox has fainted and her horse runs with her limp body on its back. Keaton grabs her and they land by the side of the road. He sees a ring on her right hand, takes it off, and puts it into his pocket. She comes to and thinks that he saved her. He pulls out the rings from her pocket and puts it on her other hand. She's thrilled but somewhat puzzled.
The couple runs to the train. Roberts, the white car owner, the shock absorber woman, and another man sneak up on them. While he pleads with Fox, he pulls down a waterspout, dousing the posse. The couple gets on the train and waves good-bye.
A title card reads "Many a honeymoon express has ended thusly." A train goes off of the tracks. Keaton comes over and fixes his toy train while Fox puts their baby to bed. Keaton closes the window shade, which reads "The End."
Special thanks are given to Fernando Peña and Serge Bromberg for locating the original release prints, and to John Bengston for his work in correctly identifying it. — Lisle Foote and Nick Ciccone