The General (Buster Keaton, 1926)

19Jul10

Marion Mack (Annabelle Lee), Glen Cavender (Captain Anderson), Jim Farley (General Thatcher), Buster Keaton (Johnny Gray). Screenplay by Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton. Directed by Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton. Rating: U. Running time: 75 minutes.

Is there a legitimate debate to be had between the relative virtues of Charlie Chaplin, who was so popular amongst the masses and had so much success commercially, and Buster Keaton, this little known figure revered much more, I am told, amongst film purists? In short, can either one of them be said to be ‘better’ than the other? The fact both are, on the surface, clowns that made silent movies tempts one to make a lot of lame comparisons, but whilst superficially similar they may be, I’m convinced any contrasts are rendered futile by the nature of what each one does. My inferences are based solely on viewings of City Lights and now this film, considered to be Keaton’s magnum opus, The General, but it seems fair to say that whilst what matters for Chaplin is expression, for Keaton it is all about action. The former is funny because of the emotions he conveys, the latter because of the stunts he pulls. To exaggerate and overemphasise the point: The General really would be funny even if Keaton’s face was blanked out for the entire picture (and the reason it would still be amusing isn’t because this would just be plain odd). The same, most certainly, cannot be said of City Lights.

I’m not sure such a difference being noted is useful in making value judgements about the merits of each filmmaker, but I just couldn’t help but notice how The General, in no bad way at all, relies so heavily on its hero’s movement. The entire film is a chase across American railway lines, as a train engineer, originally forbidden from fighting in the Civil War because his job was so important, ends up caught up in it anyway when a local train is hijacked, also whilst occupied by his lover. What follows is quite simply a crazy and hilarious pursuit across the countryside, as one train chases another and obstacles are naturally thrown in each’s direction.

It’s just wonderful stuff, impossible not to enjoy. Of particular note is a shocker of a stunt, when we remember this was a 1920s film and yet we watch a bridge collapse as a train goes over it, leading to a gigantic crash into the river and ground below. It can’t be special effects, which can only mean in some sense they actually did do this and film it. Wikipedia reliably informs me it was the most expensive stunt of the silent era; I’m not at all surprised.

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