The Scarecrow

Film Review by Dean Duncan Feb 17, 2015

I wonder if Tim Burton & Co. looked at this film when they were fashioning Pee Wee’s Herman’s house in that first feature? Probably not, but there are some really striking similarities. Both scenarios reflect a wonderfully healthy, kid-engaging fascination with simple objects and everyday tasks. That fascination is expressed in all these exquisite mechanical contrivances. So much of the discourse on industrialization emphasizes the destructive, dehumanizing components, and that’s a true and important part of the conversation. But what about this? Also true, and maybe even truer. Not only is labour being saved here, but the labour saving devices are artful unto utter delight. This is true of the props within the story, and it’s true of the film as well, despite the fact that it is the product of another much bemoaned industrial apparatus. (Looking forward, alas, to Keaton’s disastrous tenure at MGM.)

There’s an important difference between Keaton’s constructions and the lovely world that was created for Pee Wee Herman. The latter is so outsized and emphatic. It’s wonderful, but it has to be acknowledged that it might be a little too pleased with itself, and that it tries too hard. And it goes without saying that the figure ensconced within all of that quirky bounty is a tad narcissistic, and more than a tad arrested. That’s more or less the point of the character, of course, so one needn’t criticize. But it’s all so aggressively quirky. Notice, in contrast, how Buster’s inventions operate within and on behalf of a collective. He lives with someone, and though there’s a bit of teeth pulling and knockabout, basically he and Joe Roberts (compare him in the last two of the shorts; there’s a transformation) are working on each other’s behalf. They do it effectively, and harmoniously. If it weren’t for that dog, and Sybil Seeley, we’d have some kind of United Order here.

Here’s another thought about that lovely domestic technology, again in comparison with Pee Wee’s. Look how much more streamlined and matter-of-fact and plain useful/beautiful Buster’s inventions are. They’re not just bright objects, but actual working models. They are jokes, but only in part. More significantly, quite profoundly, they point the way toward adult occupation and accomplishment. This is a fictional, comical Mr. Rogers episode! These imaginary constructs point the way toward the real world, and the real fact that adulthood, with its skills and useful occupations, is a joy.

After this sterling introduction The Scarecrow basically becomes a rube comedy. Shades of Fatty Arbuckle? No problem—though Buster is no Harold Lloyd, thank goodness, he does this kind of thing very well, and this film’s slightly less than inspired conclusion is still perfectly effective, perfectly charming. “This is so sudden!”  Conventional, and yet—the themes and variations played on the situation of Buster pretending to be a scarecrow are, rube comedy or not, the height of symmetry, sophistication and beauty.