Directors: Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman
Producers: Bustern Keaton, Joseph M. Schenck
Writers: Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman (screenplay), Al Boasberg, Charles Henry Smith (adaptation)
Photography: Bert Haines, Devereaux Jennings
Music: Robert Israel, William P. Perry
Cast: Buster Keaton, Marion Mack, Glen Cavender, Jim Farley, Frederick Vroom, Charles Henry Smith, Frank Barnes, Joe Keaton, Mike Donlin
Close your eyes. Picture a silent film. You’re probably imagining a mustached, bowling-hat-wearing, cane-wielding, penguin-waddling Little Tramp named Charlie Chaplin. That’s because for many years, Chaplin was the icon, the Golden Boy, the star of the history books. But sometime around 1960, a fascinating seachange happened in a large chunk of the academic community. Critical opinion began to shift away from Chaplin and toward another silent comedian. Oh, the scholars of the Hollywood Renaissance still admired Chaplin, sure. But slowly, one by one, they were increasingly drawn to his peer, the so-called “Great Stone Face,” the man who never once showed emotion, and in doing so, became the funniest of them all — Buster Keaton.
Like Chaplin, Keaton wrote, directed, produced and starred in his own films. He directed and starred in his first films in 1917, and was soon creating masterful shorts, like One Week (1920) and The Scarecrow (1920), before graduating to longer works, gems like Our Hospitality (1923), Sherlock Jr. (1924), The Navigator (1924) and Go West (1925). Throughout, he perfected his craft, his comic timing, his understanding of camera, until finally he was ready to make his masterpiece, The General.
For it, he would bring back his favorite collaborators from films past, co-producing with Joseph M. Schenk and sharing the role of writer and director with Clyde Bruckman. Unfortunately, it would be the last film he officially directed and thus his last with complete artistic control. After one more great film, Steamboat Bill Jr., his contract with Schenck expired in 1928. As a result, Keaton reluctantly signed on with MGM, who bombarded him with studio gag-writers and crushed his creative vision. The first talking picture, The Jazz Singer (1927), had just been released, and the sound era spelled demise for Keaton and his comedy contemporaries. Still, through it all, Keaton would look back fondly on his independent years and always considered The General his own personal favorite. (A)
The film is set in the spring of 1861, just after the firing on Fort Sumter. Amidst these tumultuous times lives Johnny Gray (Keaton), an aptly named young southerner, whom we’re told has “…two loves in his life. His engine, and ….” Finishing that thought is “Annabelle Lee” (Marion Mack), named after an Edgar Allan Poe character. She’s a Southern belle who, in this time of Civil War, is most attracted to those men who enlist in the Confederate Army. So, Gray makes sure he’s the first in line, both to impress Annabelle and to genuinely support the cause. To his dismay, he is turned down from the Army, deemed more useful to the war effort if he remains the train conductor of his fine locomotive, The General.
In an instant, the trifecta of the war, the girl and the train all become a single common pursuit, as a group of Union soldiers hijacks The General with Annabelle on board. Gray tears down the tracks after it, first by handcar, then bicycle, and finally by another steam engine. The rest of the movie is a high-speed chase unlike any other in movie history, as the thieves keep finding new ways of sabotaging the tracks behind them, raising the stakes and elevating the obstacles Keaton has to overcome.
Keaton: The Daredevil
While this dilemma allows for a plethora of hillarious things to happen to Keaton, it’s important to step back and realize how heroic his character really becomes. He’s clumsy, dim-witted and forgetful, but his heart is as good as gold, and his courage is off the map. By the end, we’re cheering for him as if he were Robin Hood, Zorro, or any other classic hero, but it’s important to remember that Johnny Gray is just a regular guy. Therein lie the true genius of Keaton. It’s easy for us to cheer superheros, but to get us to cheer for a dope? That’s skill. That’s Keaton.
Part of the reason we root so heartedly for Keaton is the fact that all the danger he faces is real. When you watch a Keaton film, you might find yourself thinking — man, it looks like those stunts are really happening. That’s because they are. He makes modern actors, even those who do most of their own stunts, look like pansies. In addition to being an insanely gifted physical comedian, Keaton was well known for performing all of his own daredevil stunts. In Steamboat Bill, Jr., he allows an actual storefront wall to fall on top of him, counting on an open second floor window to spare him. In Cops (1922), he nonchalantly grabs hold of a passing car as it zooms past him. Most famously in Sherlock Jr., he attempted a fall that was later discovered to have broken his neck.
Still, The General may be Keaton’s single most dangerous undertaking. Not only does he ride a fast-moving train, he runs around it, jumping from car to car, firing cannons and sprawling out on the cow-catcher while the train is in motion. Even the film’s most famous image — Keaton casually sitting on the train’s drive shaft, only to be rotated around the wheels as the train takes off down the tracks — is more dangerous than it seems. If the train had not accelerated at the exact speed it did, the drive shaft would have launched him, possibly to his death.
Keaton: The Director
Yes, timing is everything. In fact, The General may be cinema’s greatest example of it. For this reason alone, I consider Keaton as good a director as any of the silent era. At one point, he throws a piece of wood at cannon and the cannon fires. At another, a piece of lumber sits as an obstacle on the tracks, so Keaton climbs onto the cow catcher, carrying his own piece of lumber and, with the greatest of precision, uses it to hit the other lumber off in a poetic, daresay beautiful flipping of the lumber. Most impressively, a cannon fires from Keaton’s train and lands with perfect timing far in the distance.
But Keaton was so much more as a director than just timing and blocking. He also thought far more cinematically than Chaplin. While Chaplin used his sets more like a stage, with a stationary camera, Keaton cut around, moved the camera, and tried various tricks. You might say that Chaplin was comedy’s Fred Astaire, while Keaton was its Gene Kelly. Don’t get me wrong. Chaplin’s more static approach worked wonders, and it still does to this day (think Clerks). But guys like Keaton arguably show a better understanding of their medium.
Keaton toys with the idea of subjective camera. Take for instance, the POV shot as Keaton lays on the train’s cow-catcher. Is there a better, more dynamic way of showing such danger? Also, consider the scene where the camera literally follows Keaton under a table. This leads to a POV of Keaton looking out a tiny cigar hole in the table cloth. Is there a better way of putting us, the viewer, in his precarious situation?
Keaton also explores the notion of the seen and the unseen. Most blatantly, he uses a flash of lightning to reveal a bear in the woods, frightening Keaton. More effectively, he uses the technique of letting the audience in on something that the on-screen characters are not aware of — that old Hitchcock trick of showing the bomb on the bus. In one instance, the tablecloth is lifted to reveal Keaton to us, but not to the men desperately looking for him on screen. This makes gags like him trying not to sneeze all the more hillarious.
However, as good as he is at letting audiences in on information, he’s just as good at messing with our expectations. I’m reminded of a big, melodramatic goodbye scene, like something you’d expect to see in a many a dated silent film. But then, just as we think it’s the same old melodrama, Keaton turns it on its head. In the middle of his melodramatic waves, he falls off the front steps, instantly shattering that feel.
Which brings us full circle back to the timing. Everything seems perfectly placed and perfectly paced. Keaton and Bruckman see to it that the film builds and builds, so that the suspense and the action grow more and more the further we move down the tracks. What’s more, each scene in the first half of the chase is mirrored by a scene in the film’s second half. While Johnnie pursues his stolen The General to the North in the first half, the Union spies pursue Johnnie’s re-possessed General back to the South. They travel the same terrain, in opposite directions. It’s parallelism at its finest. And, if you’ll indulge me, it works as a thematic statement of the similarities between North and South.
Tim Dirks, of AMC’s Filmsite, says the authenticity of the film makes it function like recorded history of the Civil War, with each shot resembling a Matthew Brady photograph. (A) In fact, the film is based on a real-life 1862 incident, where a group of Union spies hijacked a Confederate train — actually called The General — in Marietta, Georgia. Unlike Keaton, these guys were ultimately hanged, and some of them received posthumous Medals of Honor. All this was recorded, and fictionalized, by one of the hijacking’s participants, Corp. William Pittenger, in his novel Daring and Suffering: A History of the Great Railway Adventure (aka The Great Locomotive Chase). (A)
While Pittenger’s story was told from the Northern perspective, Keaton and Bruckman reworked it to take place from the Southern perspective. The fact that Keaton focuses on the race rather than race, keeps The General from dating like Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915). As such, it still feels very much like a Civil War piece — with southern staples like “Dixie” and “The Ants Go Marching In” on the soundtrack — without ever becoming a dated Civil War piece. To beat all, Keaton and Bruckman used the real-life General locomotive in the film, though they replaced it with another train, called The Texas, for the climatic crash in the Rock River. (A) These aren’t toy trains or computer-generated ones. These are real freaking trains plunging into the ground. And, as the story goes, Keaton and crew left the wreckage at the bottom of the river bed, where it served as tourist attraction for 20 years. (A)
While visually stunning, the train crash was the most expensive shot of the entire silent era. With such elaborate stunts and period piece visuals, The General’s budget reached $750,000, enormous for its time. However, when the film hit theaters — released in Japan on Dec. 31, 1926, but elsewhere in 1927 — it only grossed $500,000, quite literally a box office trainwreck. This led to Keaton losing his independence and having to sign the aforementioned contract with MGM, effeectively losing his independent freedom. (A)
“[Hollywood] knew time tables, they knew scripts, they knew how to outlay everything in advance,” says Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance. “But Keaton, like Chaplin, like Lloyd, really didn’t work well with a script and he wanted to have the freedom to experiment, and if that didn’t work to the time schedule, that had problems for MGM.” (B)
While the film may have been considered a financial flop at the time, its influence is apparent through the years. Keaton’s romp inspired The Great Locomotive Chase (1956), starring Fess Parker as Andrews, and his climatic train crash inspired the final scene of The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), just as his staying with a sinking ship in The Navigator (1924) was copied by Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean; and just as his projectionist going inside a movie screen in Sherlock Jr. (1924) inspired Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985).
Critically, the film has also seen a resurrection. After terrible reviews in 1927, the film now ranks toward the top of most every critics’ best list. In 1982, it cracked the BFI Sight & Sound Top Ten, and when that same list was revised in 2002, Roger Ebert voted it #6 all time. The film has also gained major ground with the AFI, who after ignoring it in its original Top 100, catapulted it to #19 on its 10th Anniversary list. The film was also part of the National Film Registry’s inaugural class in 1989, joining classics like Casablanca (1942) and Citizen Kane (1941).
The film is equally enjoyed by the modern mainstream, who have voted it #127 on the IMDB Top 250. This is probably because its appeal is so innate, dealing with three things even a child can appreciate — “Love, locomotives and laughs,” so the tagline goes. Without a doubt, Keaton’s films are the most accessible silent films ever made, combining rollercoaster action with side-splitting comedy. Many scholars call it “the best comedy of all time,” which isn’t to say it’s the funniest film of all time, but rather the best-made film in the comedy genre. You may not find yourself laughing out loud at this one, but at the very least you’ll be amused. At the very most, if you know anything at all about the science of comedy and the difficulty of comedic timing, you’ll be amazed.
CITE A: Tim Dirks, Filmsite.org
CITE B: Turner Classic Movies documentary Moguls and Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood — “Brother Can You Spare a Dream?”