Although Keaton took writing credit for only one of the Educational films (GRAND SLAM OPERA, by far the best of the series), director Charles Lamont, who was an old friend, confirmed that he contributed a great deal of material. This is evident from the fact that some gags are recycled from earlier films, while others bear his distinctive stamp. THE GOLD GHOST opens with Buster reprising his rich young twit character, dressed in top hat and tails. He overhears his girlfriend saying she will never marry him until he proves himself a man, so he gets in his car and drives away alone. Next time we see him he has run out of gas in Nevada and wanders into a ghost town, Vulture City, which was abandoned in 1898. Everything is covered in a thick layer of dust and cobwebs and falls apart at his touch. (This setting can't help but seem symbolic of his real-life situation.) At first stumbling around, encountering one mishap after another, Buster quickly adapts to his environment. He finds a sheriff's badge and guns, puts them on and adopts a hilarious parody of a cowboy walka delightful instance of his skill at mimicry. In the film's highlight he enters a saloon, winds up an ancient player piano that provides tinkly music, and has a vision of the past: he flirts with the ghost of a dance-hall girl and then shoots it out with some ghostly cowboys. The sequence is haunting and close to beautiful.
Keaton's writers could never resist bringing gangsters into his thirties films. Here a thug on the lam wanders into town, and the two become rather wary friends. Then some old miners discover gold and a new rush begins, and among the arrivals are Buster's girl and her father. The film's reasonably effective climax involves his efforts to prevent claim jumpers from stealing the mine belonging to his girlfriend's father, culminating in a brawl in which his ingenuity makes up for his lack of brawn. There are some bits of action here filmed as authentically as anything in his silent films, which is rare in these low-budget quickies. In the midst of the fight he bumps a slot machine and coins pour out into his porkpie hat, a nice image for the way he could still hit the comic jackpot.
Keaton had very clear ideas about how to adapt his film-making style for sound, and the Educational films demonstrate it well, giving a glimpse of what his sound features might have been like if he had had control over them. There's no unnecessary talking and no comic dialogue, and his character is particularly taciturn, but there's also a deliberate, sparing, atmospheric use of sound. Sound inescapably slows and weighs down the action, and Buster's deep raspy voice alters his otherworldly silent image. (Even in silence he no longer looks angelic; a scene of him undressed is quite alarming, since his once burnished physique is now frail and pasty.) But if he could make something this decent with a low budget while depressed and alcoholic, one can imagine how good his sound films could have been under ideal circumstances. THE GOLD GHOST is no work of art and no laugh riot, but for Keaton fans it's a pleasant surprise. And it's a telling reflection on Hollywood that he went from the richest, most prestigious studio in town to the cheapest and made better movies there.