Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Films of Buster Keaton: The General (1927)

The General (1927)
Directed by: Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman.   
Written by: Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman.
Starring: Buster Keaton (Johnnie Gray), Marion Mack (Annabelle Lee), Glen Cavender (Captain Anderson), Jim Farley (General Thatcher), Frederick Vroom (A Southern General), Charles Henry Smith  Charles (Annabelle's Father), Frank Barnes (Annabelle's Brother), Joe Keaton (Union General), Mike Donlin (Union General), Tom Nawn (Union General).

The General is widely considered to be Buster Keaton’s best film – and even if personally I prefer Sherlock Jr. – I wouldn’t argue very strenuously against anyone who picked this film instead. The film shows Keaton at the height of his powers – including some of the best, most jaw dropping stunt work ever committed to film. It is also one of Keaton’s best narratives – with a story that moves at a breakneck pace for all 78 minutes of its runtime. I think Keaton has made funnier films and more magical films – but I’m not sure he’s made one quite this daring or as fast moving.

Keaton stars as Johnnie Gray – a Southern railroad engineer who is dejected when the Confederates won’t take him at the start of the Civil War. What he doesn’t quite understand is that they feel he will be more valuable to the South as an engineer than as a soldier. His beloved Annabelle (Marion Mack) is ashamed of him – and tells him she doesn’t want to see him again until he’s in a Confederate uniform.

A year passes, and Johnnie is still depressed and alone – and still an engineer. Union spies steal his beloved train – The General – and Johnnie gives chase – on foot, by bike, by sidecar and finally by hoping in another train and chasing him down. At various points, Johnnie thinks he has Confederate soldiers backing him up – but he keeps messing that up, so he’s all by himself, chasing down a group of soldiers who will do whatever necessary to stop him. The movie is essentially one long chase sequence – or two really – as first Johnnie has to catch up and retake his beloved train, and then he has to run away from the Union spies who chase him down after he steals it back.

There is great stunt work by Keaton throughout The General. He will, at various times, run to the front of the engine – where sitting on the “cow catcher” clear the tracks of the logs placed their to try and derail him – often by daringly throwing other large block of wood onto them, so they flip off. He’ll run back and forth to the cars he’s pulling – fire a canon – jump on and off the train to pull the levers to switch tracks. He does this all with ease – far more ease in fact that the chase back to the South, where he’s saddled with his beloved Annabelle, who screws up more than she gets things right.

Much of The General happens at breakneck speed. There are few movies that are able to keep up this kind of pacing throughout the film – and even fewer that are able to provide this much action, humor and genuine heart than The General does. There is great stunt work throughout – but also some moments of wonderful, quieter visual power and humor – Keaton sitting on the spoke of a train that starts moving while he doesn’t notice, the background action as he’s so busy chopping wood he doesn’t notice a battle going on around him, the wonderful sequence where Keaton hides under a table and listens to the Union’s plans – and sees his beloved and knows he must rescue her.

At the time it was made, The General was one of the most expensive films ever. It’s easy to see why when you consider the cast of extras, the battle sequences and the fact that Keaton really does have a train crash off of a bridge. You could argue that The General was not unlike the blockbusters of today – yet no filmmaker today could do what Keaton does here. Yes, he has a ton of money being spent on his movie, but he never loses sight of his characters or the plot.

The movie is Keaton at his best – probably the film I would recommend that anyone start with when viewing Keaton for the first time. You’ll see him at his best – the Great Stone Face – as one damn thing after another conspires to crush him, and yet he simply puts his head down and charges right through. Quite simply, The General is a masterpiece.

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