Buster Keaton bestowed a superb set of assets to movies: an athlete's body, a performer's instincts and a mechanic's curiosity. His lean physique could answer to multiple demands -- dashing, leaping, catapulting, beatened by bullies and, in one case, slammed by the contents of a railroad water tank.
Keaton made a heap of amazing shorts and features, but one has always risen above the rest by a way of its sheer scale. That film is The General, which consistently appears on critics polls as one of the greatest films ever made. The General is by far the most famous of the comedy features in which Buster Keaton starred, and in several cases directed or co-directed, between 1923 and 1928. It was one of the most expensive silent films ever made, and contains the single most expensive sequence in silent films.
The Story Pattern
All of his silent features followed a basic story formula: a failed young man, finally displays prowess and wins the girl. In addition, his films demonstrated, in part or in whole, a striking cinematic imagination as well as superb comic acting. The story, like all his films is simple: At the time of American Civil War, Union spies steal an engineer's beloved locomotive. He pursues it single-handedly and straight through enemy lines. The film is distinctive for its civil war setting and location shooting. It was shot mostly in areas, where the necessary narrow-gauge railroad tracks are found. The unusually fine photography, the extensive action involving trains, the ambitious subject, based on history, and the serious element of the drama combined to give this film and epic sweep that is surely unique in silent comedy.
In the typical Buster Keaton comedy the hero is at first anything but heroic: he is callow, bumbling, and even a decadent. Through perseverance, and luck he becomes a success -- sometimes as a bonus but usually as the original goal -- he is united with the woman of his dreams. In General, Johnnie Gray (Buster Keaton) is an expert in at least one field, rail-road engineering. In fact his competence at his job is what prevents him from being accepted into the army, setting the rest of the plot in motion.
Of course he must still demonstrate bravery to win the heart of Annabelle Lee: and, to satisfy himself, must succeed as a soldier as well. The unselfish heroism and expertise of Johnny Gray are simultaneously touching and amusing -- though much of his success is also due to good fortune. The heroine of the film, has a larger and more unusual role than in the other Keaton features. Usually a Keaton heroine is either haughty, or sweet, but in each case little more than the goal to be attained; There is some stereotyping of the foolish female in some of Annabelle's earlier efforts to block the pursuers and feed the engine, but the evolving of her role from the "unattainable goal" to a partner in action is still refreshing.
The General is filled with surprising moments: brilliant comic jokes, or fine touches of sentiment that never go on long enough to become cutesy. Perhaps the comedy is especially striking because it grows out of a serious melodramatic pursuit -- but it is particularly satisfying because it stems from the characters of the hero and heroine or from the ironic perspective of the camera. The point has often been made that the camera in Chaplin's films was used mainly to record the body of facial movements of its pantomime hero, while in Keaton's films the comedy often depends on special placement of the camera, or on special visual effects.
A classic example in The General happens when Johnnie has accidentally caused the cannon attachment to be aimed directly at his own train. However, he and his train are spared, and it is better that, the enemy is convinced of the powers of their pursuer, when the forepart of Johnny's train curves left and the cannon fires directly ahead -- nearly blasting the black car of the train, on the track ahead. The elegance of the gag centers on the placement of the camera behind and above the cannon car, grandly recording the beautiful timed action in one shot.
Another famous moment in the film -- this one visually simple and emotionally complex -- occurs when Johnnie, rejected by Annabelle, sits desolately on the cross bar of the engine's wheels as the train starts up. The cross bar carries him up and down twice before he realizes what is going on. His forlorn, unmoving body posture is at once astonishingly sad and funny; and drift into sentimentality is avoided by Johnny's suddenly aware look as he passes into the train shed. The overall wit and irony of the shot are dependent on the camera being placed at a sufficient distance to show the small size of Johnny's body against the sublimely indifferent machine.
The General is Buster Keaton's ageless masterpiece. He was more interested in making a good film that was authentic than in making stacks of money. He spared no expenses while filming. As a result of the great expenses incurred, the film was more a critical success than a great moneymaker. Anyway, The General has to be seen to be believed. Those who love movies must see, Keaton in action.