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Buster Keaton in The General


This is one of two silent classics recently reissued by Kino in two-disc versions. The other is Buster Keaton’s The General (1926), a movie so universally celebrated as his greatest achievement that its reputation can roll over you like a steam engine. Key to its lore is that it wasn’t so successful at the time, partly due to its enormous expense, and only since the Keaton revival of the 1950s has it become so highly regarded.


This new Kino reissue quotes critic David Robinson on the package. “Every shot has the authenticity and the unassuming correct composition of a Matthew Brady Civil War photograph,” he writes, adding that no other filmmaker caught the visual aspect of the Civil War (or at least Brady photographs) as Keaton did. Orson Welles makes a similar remark in his introduction to the movie from the early ‘70s PBS series The Silent Years, which is included as a bonus along with Gloria Swanson’s intro from an early ‘60s series called Silents Please. Welles rhapsodizes about the film’s beauty, declaring it “a hundred times more visually stunning than Gone with the Wind.


 


cover art

The General (The Ultimate 2-Disc Edition)

Director: Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman
Cast: Buster Keaton, Marion Mack

(US DVD: 11 Nov 2008)

But that doesn’t sound hilarious, does it? That’s one clue to why contemporary audiences were less impressed with it than, as the aliens told Woody Allen in Stardust Memories, with his earlier, funnier films—or his later funnier ones. The General is part of a Keaton trend toward quite serious stories highlighted by Douglas Fairbanks-ian physicality, as seen in Our Hospitality (which I actually like better) or The Navigator (ditto) or Battling Butler (a close call). In fact, the most famous stunt in The General has nothing to do with Keaton except as its creator. It’s the collapse of a train on a burning bridge, which was reported as the most expensive sequence ever filmed to that time. What does it mean that the most famous image in a Keaton film doesn’t have Keaton in it? It’s certainly an impressive shot every time you see it—there’s the train really falling—but hardly a knee-slapper.

Then too, the whole set-up is an irritating play among wholly uninteresting characters. Keaton’s Johnny is in love with a silly girl unworthy of him, and when the Civil War breaks out and her father and brother go off to enlist, she goads him to enlist too. So he rushes to be first in line at the enlistment office, where two officials decide he’s already too valuable to the war effort as a railroad conductor and refuse to enlist him. But they simply shine him along without telling him why, leading to his extended scene of frustration as he assumes he’s not good enough to be a soldier. When he leaves the office, he’s seen by the father and brother who encourage him to get in line, and when he doesn’t even answer them, they assume he’s too chicken to enlist and they pass this misinformation along to their sister.

In other words, this story requires two colossal misapprehensions that could be solved if only anyone said anything to anybody. When Johnny finally tries to explain, she cuts him off with “Don’t lie to me. And don’t talk to me again until you’re in uniform.” Compared with this contrivance, the premise of Seven Chances, in which Buster has 24 hours to get married and inherit a fortune, is a model of common sense and rigorous cause-and-effect.


But when people recall this film fondly, they skip right over that stuff and go directly to the exciting chase (actually two chases) that’s loosely based on a real historical incident. (The Walt Disney film The Great Locomotive Chase tells a version of the same story from the Northern point of view.) And yes, this narrative is full of ingenious, breathless, well-choreographed ideas that make the film entertaining. I’m only stating here that if you’re more impressed by the visuals of the chase or the Brady-esque compositions, you should be aware that several less ambitious Keaton movies are actually funnier and have more endearing characters, if that matters to you.


Yet I admit that when I first saw this movie at a tender age, with that intro by Welles, I wasn’t bothered by the frustration of the set-up or the thin romance, nor did I have other Keatons to compare it with. I accepted its simplicities and plugged right into the breathless fun. Childhood is an excellent time to be introduced to silent films. One accepts them as a world unto itself, like animation or musicals.


Kino is our most vigilant and tireless guide to that era. This two-disc set includes three scores, a tour of filming locations, a history and look at the actual General engine, some brief behind-the-scenes footage, and a montage of Keaton’s train gags. The print is declared to be mastered in HD from a 35mm archive print struck from the negative, and it looks very good.


Kino has also recently released Harry Langdon: Three’s a Crowd and The Chaser, an important and welcome contribution to the ongoing excavation of this comedian’s neglected corpus, about which we’ve written in these pages before. Langdon directed himself in these commercial disappointments of 1927-28.


On the surface, and even under it, Three’s a Crowd is a sad, pathetic tale of a man-child for whom nothing will work out, a schlemiel without even the bittersweet insouciance of a Chaplin. In the dead of winter, he lives in an eyrie at the top of an impossibly long, narrow flight of stairs. As per Langdon’s specialty, nothing definite happens for long stretches of film (and at least one dream sequence was unfortunately removed to make it shorter), but eventually he takes in a woman with no apparent husband as she’s moments away from giving birth. Harry apparently intends to keep these strays as his new family. David Kalat’s commentary vigorously defends this misunderstood film and explains how even the comical stunts, such as Langdon falling through his floor, are pervaded by fatalism.


This is how Langdon expands the boundaries of comedy into things that aren’t really funny—not unlike Keaton, mark you, save that Keaton is an action hero while Langdon is a stasis hero, more acted upon than acting. The Chaser goes further, although it’s full of more conventionally ridiculous comic situations. The movie’s central absurdity is the concept of Harry, the sexless halfwit of the previous film, now carousing the town and somehow being irresistible to women. This time he has a wife (Gladys McConnell, the pregnant lass of the previous film in a wildly different role), but this is domestic comedy Harry-style with a strange gender reversal.


Harry stays out late at boisterous lodge meetings, which leads to a sequence of would-be homicide involving the mother-in-law. For this, Harry is sentenced to switch places with his wife for six months. That means his better half puts on mannish attire and goes out to bring home the bacon while Harry wears a dress, does the housework and fights off the attentions of a series of male visitors. This leads to an extended suicide attempt! The film changes direction somewhat when he goes golfing with a chum who must be the only person in the country not to have read about Harry’s sentence in the papers.


Another Kino release in their Slapstick Symposium series is The Extra Girl, a Mack Sennett production of 1923 made to showcase Mabel Normand, probably the most famous female comic of the era. The first half of the film concerns her small-town life with her parents, her romantic triangle, and her dreams of making it in Hollywood. Her unsuitable suitor is the portly Vernon Dent, a great comic actor from Langdon’s shorts. A wedding-day escape leads to the Hollywood portion of the film as she thinks she’s going to make it big in pictures. The comic highlight involves a lion. Possibly the most effective scene is the non-comic, acutely human moment when Mabel is discovered by her parents in the act of running away.


Hollywood was already one of Hollywood’s favorite subjects, and this is part of a line of spoofs that include Merton of the Movies, Ella Cinders and Show People, all of which came later. The feature looks and feels like a strung-together series of bits, a common quality of many comedies. For example, a swindler is thrown into the plot at the last minute for no special reason. Yet Normand is always a charming presence, especially when “acting”. This is, by the way, the same 1969-copyrighted tinted print, with the same music, that played on the aforementioned series The Silent Years, but this time we get no Welles intro. A 1913 short, The Gusher, in which she plays the pretty appendage of a childishly hyperactive Ford Sterling, is included as a bonus to show her notable evolution as a comic presence.


Buster Keaton performing stunts in The General


Michael Barrett is a San Antonio-based freelance writer who tries not to leave the house. He has degrees from Trinity University in San Antonio and University of California at Davis. He watches one film a day. In addition to his features and reviews on PopMatters, see also his PopMatters column, Canon Fodder. Since the early '90s he has written a monthly video column for the San Antonio Express-News, and his national publications include Library Journal and the Chicago-based Nostalgia Digest.


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