Film Score: Carl Davis (1987) Cinematography: Devereaux Jennings
Starring: Buster Keaton, Marion Mack, Glen Cavender and Jim Farley
An Evening’s Entertainment, author Richard Koszarski makes this point about the differences between Chaplin and Keaton during the twenties. “To put it bluntly, Chaplin was a god to film intellectuals of the 1920s, while Buster Keaton was often considered a likable, if limited, performer with nothing very much to say.” And while that position hasn’t completely reversed today, it seems clear that Keaton has shot past Chaplin in critical terms, especially to those more concerned with cinematic art rather than popularity. The same thing has happened in the horror genre as well, with the dominant Karloff being surpassed critically by the much maligned Lugosi, to the point where author Gregory William Mank reversed the order of the “billing” on the revised version of his book on the two stars, now listing Lugosi first. I must confess myself to be clearly in the Keaton camp in terms of silent comedy (and I’ve always preferred Lugosi to Karloff). Nearly everything about his films demonstrates an originality of thought that can be measured in fairly objective terms: while Chaplin had many imitators, no one could copy Keaton.
The General is arguably Keaton’s finest film. It’s his homage to the Civil War and made with such care and attention that silent film historian Kevin Brownlow writes in the narration of Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow, his documentary on the great comedian, “He recreated the period so carefully that, for many modern audiences, this is the Civil War come to life.” And while Brownlow said of him that “he was a totally intuitive artist,” Keaton was also a consciously brilliant filmmaker, keenly attuned to not only what audiences liked, but what they liked about his character. “Buster had an instinctive way of working with film,” said his wife Eleanor in an interview at the time of the release of the documentary. “He had a way of seeing things that other people didn’t see. He knew before he filmed something whether it would be funny. He didn’t have to wait for the preview.” This was also Keaton’s favorite film because he came up with the subject, a real event from the Civil War, and had complete creative control including the location. As there was too much modern infrastructure built up around railroads in the South, he decided to shoot the film in Cottage Grove, Oregon.
Keaton is the engineer on a train called the General. His other love is Marion Mack. After the train pulls into Marietta, Georgia, he goes to visit her and when the news comes that the South has ceded from the Union, her father and brother enlist. But when Keaton tries they won’t take him because he’s too valuable to be a soldier. He doesn’t know this, however, and despondent he sits down, beginning one of the best sight gags in the film as the train begins rolling while he goes up and down on the drive rod. A year later Union Army raiders decided to steal a Confederate train and burn all the bridges behind it while they head north. Of course the train they take is Keaton’s, and naturally Mack is onboard. When he stops to pick up a cannon on wheels, this leads to one of the funniest sequences in the film both times he tries to fire it. Unable to stop the enemy in his train, he takes refuge in a house in enemy territory and accidentally overhears the battle plans for the next day. Armed with this information, even Mack won’t be able to deny his heroism.
The great irony of this film is that it had so much bad luck. In the first place, production costs were high because of the location shooting, and when a fire started accidentally the production had to be shut down until a rainstorm could clear away the smoke. The film didn’t lose money, but didn’t make as much as expected. Critics were tepid about the film and that kept audiences away. As a result, Keaton lost his independence and was never able to work on his own in Hollywood again. If there’s a bright spot, however, it was that Keaton lived to see the film reevaluated in the 1960s and his unique gifts given the recognition they long deserved. In comparison with Chaplin’s The Gold Rush from the year before, there is no comparison. Where Chaplin’s film was a string of gags held together by a thin premise, Keaton’s film was a wonderfully fleshed out story, all the more impressive because the basis of it was true. The bulk of the motion picture, shot on moving trains, is breathtaking, and the gags are impressive while still remaining subservient to the story. And the best part about it is that Keaton never panders to the audience for laughs. The General is certainly one of the high points of silent cinema as well as being one of the great film classics of all time.
This is one time The A List gets it right, and with an essay by Roger Ebert of all people. Ebert gets right to the heart of why this film is so great. He begins with a lengthy description of the opening in Marietta, with Keaton being followed by two boys and Marion Mack. When he finally sees her, “the moment would have inspired an overacted double-take from many other silent comedians. Keaton plays it with his face registering merely heightened interest.” This is a mannerism that would be repeated to great effect twice more, when he loses a boxcar on the way. Though we can appreciate him for this so much now--“he seems like a modern visitor to the world of the silent clowns”--that’s also why he wasn’t as popular with audiences of the day as he clearly should have been. Ebert also points out the magnificence of a chase on trains, something that doesn’t seem as if it should work and yet Keaton comes up with brilliant ideas to make it essential to the piece. Unlike Chaplin, Ebert goes on, “although they’re filled with gags, you can rarely catch Keaton writing a scene around a gag; instead the laughs emerge from the situation.” It’s a worthy tribute to The General, a worthy film made by a comedian worthy of all the praise we can give him.