The Lumière Brothers and Georges Méliès are often credited with laying the foundation for two divergent paths in film history: a documentary-like inclination towards realism in the former, and an emphasis on fantasy and spectacle in the latter. It is indeed hard to overstate the importance of both traditions in the ensuing century-plus of movies, but there’s a third and maybe equally significant influence that emerged from early French cinema. The crime serials that started populating storefront cinemas in France in the 1910s—by which point the powerhouse production companies (like Gaumont and Éclair) had already been established and urban audiences had begun flocking to movies as the modern era’s pop-culture medium of choice—walked a fine line between mainstream entertainment and subversive surrealism. French artists like Louis Aragon and Andre Breton praised such serials for inscribing the headlong velocity of the twentieth century onscreen.
Most Western-movie heroes are stoic loners, wandering through a desolate desert landscape that threatens to overwhelm them. “Friendless,” Buster Keaton’s stone-faced character in the 1925 Western lampoon Go West, is no different, but this time Friendless’ solitude isn’t exactly by choice. A diminutive but resilient New Yorker who hops a train out West (following Horace Greeley’s aphoristic advice) and becomes an unlikely cowboy on a cattle ranch, Friendless is—like many Keaton heroes—oblivious in the face of danger. He triumphs by sheer luck and determination, taking to the cattle-rustling business in the same unassuming way that Johnnie Gray, Buster’s character in The General, assumes the cavalier role of Confederate spy.