Directed by Buster Keaton and Eddie Cline
Release Date: January, 1922
Total Running Time: 20 minutes
It's Pratfalls with Wolves as Buster the butterfly collector bumbles into a (very "movie Indian") Indian settlement, he winds up helping protect them from the land grabbing oil company, gets accepted into the tribe, and of course, finds love.
Buster Keaton: The Paleface
Joe Roberts: The Chief
Virginia Fox: The Squaw
In this film, Buster is quite sympathetic to a tribe of Native Americans who are being cheated by a group of white bankers. It’s been assumed that one reason Keaton was so progressive in his approach to this film is that it’s been rumored he was possibly descended from Native Americans himself.
[In this synopsis I will use the term Indian instead of Native American because the characters are movie Indians and bear no resemblance to any actual indigenous people.]
Keaton finally finds some people more deadpan than he is in The Paleface. While an Indian settlement and their chief (Joe Roberts) live in peace, a group of oil sharks prepare to steal their land. A thug arrives at the Western Oil Leasing Company and recounts to the president, D.J. Hunt, how he knocked out an Indian, took the deed, and left him with a dollar coin. Hunt sends the tribe a letter, giving them twenty-four hours to get off of the land. When Roberts gets it, he vows to kill the first white man to come through their gate.
Keaton peeks in. Carrying a net and a collection bag, he comes in pursuit of a white butterfly. He greets two braves as he goes after the insect. They follow him, and are soon joined by the other male villagers. Keaton notices and makes a mad dash - to a bug. It's only a fly. A pretty Indian girl passes and Keaton tries to follow her. Roberts stops him. Keaton continues his hunt and moves to catch a butterfly, but he nets Roberts. The braves tackle him. When he gets up, he finds that he did nab the creature.
Keaton walks to a tall stake in the ground. The men begin a war dance, which he joins. Then they tie him to the stake. While they search for firewood, he lifts the stake from the ground and moves. By bending over, he knocks out an Indian, then he steals his blanket and braids. Thus disguised, he goes back to the village with them. One brave steps on his blanket and the chase begins.
Keaton runs to a cliff top and tries to hide behind the blanket. The Indian is too smart for that; he tosses Keaton off, who uses the blanket as a parachute. An Indian at the bottom breaks his fall. He runs to a log cabin where he finds a roll of asbestos. While his pursuers find a log to batter down the door, Keaton fashions a set of asbestos BVDs, which he puts on under his clothes. The Indians knock down the door on top of him and run over it, allowing him to crawl out and run away. He slides and tumbles down a steep sand dune, 'ski jumping' at the bottom into a tree. The Indians hold a blanket for him to jump into, but he bounces onto the cliff on the other side. He crawls away, right to the stake where Roberts surprises him. Keaton faints and the Indians tie him to the stake. The Indian maiden observes his plight and sighs. Keaton is unimpressed as the flames char his outerwear; after they burn through the ropes that bind him he lights a cigarette with a glowing twig. The Indians bow down to him.
Keaton becomes a member in good standing, and Roberts consults him when they get notice to vacate. Keaton hands his smoking jacket and pipe to his valet and the tribe mounts horses (Roberts with assistance, Keaton backwards - he thought he was getting on a different horse that faced the other direction).
They arrive at the oil land leasing office, and after threats, Keaton conducts a war dance (which he pauses to instruct one brave on form). One oil man crawls out the back door and Keaton almost scalps him; another goes out the front door and on being caught by Keaton, takes the toupee off of his head and hands it to him. Keaton shows off his prize as the company president rides away. The tribe rides after him. Keaton trials behind and falls off of his horse at the road fork where the Indians lost their quarry. D.J. Hunt forces him to exchange clothes at gunpoint. His tribe sees their newest member at a distance and fires arrows at him.
A member of a rival tribe watches the action; many more of his group show themselves. Keaton slides down a hill and lands on a road only to see the retreating backs of his tribe. He walks across a field. Then the rivals appear. He explains that he's their Little Chief Paleface, but they just throw a tomahawk at him.
Keaton saunters away to a precarious wire bridge that's missing half of its slats. He crawls on to it, taking the slats with him and putting them before him as he goes. His tribe arrives on the opposite cliff. Keaton makes it across, but when he sees his people (thinking they're still after him) he runs back on the bridge in fright. He plunges down the canyon and into the river at the bottom. He swims to the shore. A member of the rival tribe turns up on the opposite shore; they both dive in and surface on the other's side.
Keaton runs back to the village gate and bops two braves with the gate latch. The rest of the tribe rides up, and before Keaton can sneak away Roberts kneels before him. Still wearing D.J. Hunt's coat, he discovers the grant deed for the property. Roberts is ecstatic and he offers Keaton whatever he wants. He asks for an Indian squab, and the maiden he'd seen earlier falls into his embrace. "Two years later" she's still there. Keaton comes up for air and resumes kissing her.
This plot may be familiar to those who've seen the uncredited re-make Dances With Wolves. The elements are the same: white guy stumbles into Native Americans, impresses them, helps them against bad white men, and gets one of their women -- except at 20 minutes, The Paleface is entertaining. Keaton's fall into the ravine launched a thousand Wile E. Coyotes, too.
As is often the case, contemporary critics didn't fully appreciate the film. The New York Times said "it isn't as funny as The Boat but it was enough. It restored to life one who had been reduced to sommiferous weariness" by the feature (March 8, 1922). Variety was worse: "as a filler it will get by, but it isn't strong enough to stand up without a fairly good feature with it on the bill" (July 21, 1922). Nowadays, people tend to agree more with Jim Kline: it is "one of his best lighthearted wilderness romps" (p. 75). — Lisle Foote