Directed by Buster Keaton and Mal St. Clair
Release Date: August, 1922
Total Running Time: 17 minutes
In this biting parody of films and filmmakers of the day, Buster faces the biting cold, biting fish, fighting cowboys, and frosty women.
Buster Keaton: The Bad Man
Sybil Seely: His Wife
Joe Roberts: The Driver
Bonnie Hill: The Pretty Neighbor
Freeman Wood: Her Husband
Eddie Cline: The Janitor
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The Frozen North is a satire of William S. Hart westerns.
[This is based on the fragmentary version found on the 2001 Kino laserdisk.]
Surrealists must love The Frozen North, Keaton's spoof of William S. Hart movies. It's his strangest short. It opens at the last stop on the subway, an exit in the middle of a snow-covered field. Keaton is wearing a cowboy hat, and his drying socks are strapped across his back. He saunters over to the saloon, sees a roulette game going on, and scratches his palm. On seeing an ad for Bulls-Eye Ammunition that features a man pointing a gun, he gets an idea. He cuts out the figure and puts it up in the saloon's window. He yells "Hands Up" and all saloon activity ceases. He gathers up all of the guns and tosses them out, then collects the money on the roulette table. A drunk discovers that his accomplice is only cardboard, and after surrounding Keaton the crowd glares menacingly and he puts the money back. They toss him out the window.
He walks to a cabin and goes in. A man holds a woman; Keaton is heartbroken (tears slide down his face). He shoots twice. He looks at the corpses and realizes it's neither his wife nor his house. He tips his hat and leaves.
At his own cabin his wife (Sybil Seely) tries to greet him but he treats her with cold indifference, preferring to sit and brood. She screams and a passing Mountie hears her. During her histrionics, she upsets a pot on a high shelf, knocking herself out. The Mountie knocks on the door and Keaton, thinking quickly, puts on a record and dances with his limp wife. He convinces the officer that there's no problem. After he leaves, Keaton drops her in a heap.
He looks across the way at his pretty neighbor (Bonnie Hill). He gets dressed up and goes calling, pausing only to contemplate nature (then falling into the snow) and to pick a flower. The neighbor's husband (Freeman Wood) leaves to get on a dog sled and Keaton appears from behind the front door. He edges over to the table where a candle sets the flower on fire. He almost hands the burning stem to Hill, drops it, and they both stomp it out (she treads on his foot and he treads back). He kisses her hand. Having forgotten something, her husband returns. He kicks Keaton and takes his wife with him.
Keaton slams the cabin's front door, causing the snow on the roof to engulf him. After he climbs out, he calls to a taxi driver (Joe Roberts) and says "After them." Keaton gets into the vehicle (a car body pulled by a mismatched team of dogs) and opens his newspaper. The harness soon breaks and the dogs run off, leaving Keaton to stuff snow into the overheated radiator and call for another taxi. A horse-drawn sled picks them up.
The husband and wife arrive at their destination. Keaton's sled speeds along. A cop on a propeller-driven Harley with runners for wheels pulls them over. While the driver discusses his ticket with the cop, Keaton reverses the propeller. Before the cop finished writing the ticket, the sled leaves. The cop hops on his motorcycle, but it goes backwards into the river.
By a sign that says "North Pole 3 Miles South" Keaton and Roberts get out and look around. Roberts tips over the sled when he gets back on, so he and Keaton hike to his igloo. Keaton hangs his hat on a stuffed deer's antler, but it is hinged and his hat falls. Accompanied by his guitar, Roberts sings a lachrymose tune. While listening, Keaton leans back and falls through the igloo's wall. Roberts puts on his snowshoes and goes out. Keaton looks for something to put on his feet and settles for two guitars.
Keaton skis and stumbles towards where Roberts is preparing to ice fish. Keaton offers to cut the hole. He cuts a circle around himself with a hatchet. He realizes his mistake and hops out. He taps his foot inside the circle to loosen it, but it doesn't work. Frustrated, he stomps on it and goes through the ice. He climbs out, sits on a guitar, baits his hook and begins to fish. A nearby fisherman keeps his catch on a line underwater, but the peg that holds it pops out. Keaton reels in the other guy's catch. With his next cast he hooks the other man's line. They play tug of war until, with a might heave, Keaton pulls the other man out of his hole. Keaton quickly departs, putting on Robert's abandoned snowshoes. The fisherman throws snowballs at him, which Keaton returns, using a snowshoe as a tennis racket. He comes after Keaton, but right before he attacks he runs in fright. Keaton doesn't know why until he sees the bear. He runs, too.
A dog runs past Keaton as he goes back into the igloo, where Roberts is using a carpet sweeper on the floor. Keaton kicks him, then hears Hill sweeping snow from her porch. After a manly swig of Coke, Keaton goes over through a pile of snow. He interrupts her solitaire game and backs her into a wall. Then he hears her husband outside. Keaton's arm is an ineffective door block (he's got it on the wrong side) and Wood enters. He takes off his coat, ready to fight Keaton, who runs up the stairs and out the window. Wood goes out the front door, past the snowman - Keaton. Our hero goes back into the cabin and the woman sees him as Erich von Stroheim, dressed in a white uniform. While out searching, Wood runs into Roberts, who is also looking for Keaton. Roberts threatens him with a knife. [The husband must grab the knife, because he ends up with it, but that's missing from this print.] He hits Roberts, who flies headfirst into the snow.
Back at the cabin, Keaton, in a false beard, stands over the weeping woman. Her husband comes in and takes the knife from his belt. Seely is outside and she shoots Keaton. He falls melodramatically, and the couple is reunited. Keaton takes the gun from his belt and points it at them. The scene dissolves to a movie theater where a cleaner (Eddie Cline) wakes him and tells him that the movie is over.
Not all of The Frozen North makes sense, probably because it's fragmented. But I have no doubt that it was pretty weird when it was whole. It's odd to see Keaton playing a would be thief, murderer, wife-abuser, and adulterer, even if it's only a dream - and a parody. Nevertheless, the jokes work, even if you've never seen the Hart films he's spoofing. — Lisle Foote