THE GENERAL (1927)
a commentary by Tony McRae
Buster Keaton was a stickler for authenticity. In The General he uses detail-perfect train tracks and armies and cannons and bridges for his Civil War story about a stolen train. Yet instead of giving us realism he throws us a curve - literally. He takes us into a geometrically contrived landscape full of ellipses, curves, and circularity, a place so extraordinarily in motion that we can only marvel at its delicate balance.
The story, almost pristine in its simplicity, is a chase--or rather two chases, the second the inverse of the first. The plot gets going when northern soldiers hijack a southern locomotive and head north (screen right to screen left ff ), their purpose to cut the Confederate supply lines by breaking up the track. The locomotive they happen to steal is The General, and its engineer is Johnnie Gray (Keaton), certainly one of the most persistent figures in movie history. Once Johnnie gives chase this becomes a motion picture in the true sense of the word. Johnnie recaptures his beloved locomotive "The General" - and, incidentally, his erstwhile girlfriend Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack) - and heads south (screen left to screen right gg ).
Keaton the director is not content to simply divide the movie into a right-left and left-right flow: there are all kinds of angles and shots. In one visually stunning sequence (see picture at right) he shows a totally absorbed Johnnie Gray cutting wood for the locomotive's furnace so he can continue his northward pursuit (ff), while behind him northern soldiers are marching toward the south gg ),
The gags Keaton employs along the way are clever and funny, some of the best ever conceived. But they are not slapstick. And that's one reason, I believe, why it was not hugely popular with audiences of the time. I get somewhat the same reaction whenever I show this movie to my students. My guess is that the gags are so deeply embedded in the story and the timing is so subtlety perfect that it takes a few seconds for the viewer to grasp what's happened. But shrewdly Keaton builds in pauses, what Walter Kerr in The Silent Clowns calls "the Keaton quiet." I've found that the majority of students initially take to Chaplin more readily, but in the long run most rediscover Keaton and hold him in equal or higher esteem.
Buster Keaton's 1860s South is a real place not only for its unerring mise-en-scène but because it is organic, a fully conceived and executed universe. Perhaps more than any other movie, silent or sound, we have a near perfect blend of dramatic action and comedy. This is as close to a definition of film art as I can postulate.
Visit the IMDb for more information about The General.
Also visit The Damfinos for more on Buster Keaton.
The best book on silent comedy is Walter Kerr's The Silent Clowns; it can be purchased at Amazon.com.
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