Tuesday, February 13, 2024

The NFR Project: 'The General' (1927)


The General

Dir: Clyde Bruckman, Buster Keaton

Scr: Al Boasberg, Clyde Bruckman, Buster Keaton, Charles Henry Smith, Paul Gerard Smith

Pho: Bert Haines, Devereaux Jennings

Ed: Buster Keaton, Sherman Kell

Premiere: Dec. 31, 1926

75 min.

Buster Keaton’s masterpiece The General is meticulous and precise, beautiful like a set of mathematical propositions, or a Bach cantata. There’s not an extraneous frame – everything leads to a stunning climax that is still the most spectacular gag ever staged. Most importantly, it’s still funny, all the way through.

Keaton’s comic persona here is the one he perfected over the previous decade – the stone-faced, stoic endurer of nature and fate’s insults. He is clever, but guileless, level-headed but awkward. He also happens to be a superbly trained, athletic physical comedian. He is the unsmiling, inventive clown of silent film.

The General is his eighth self-directed feature film, and he and his team of writers and of technical experts were at a peak of efficiency. He had gone into period filmmaking with his Our Hospitality (1923), and here, with the help of 500 extras from the Oregon National Guard, he convincingly recreates the sense and scale and sheer mass of the battles of the Civil War era.

Keaton is Johnnie Gray, a train engineer and solid son of the South. (Keaton wisely puts his protagonist on the side of the underdog.) When war is declared, he attempts to join the Confederate Army, but is rejected because, unbeknownst to him, he is more valuable to the Cause as an engineer. His sweetheart and her family reject him, and his disconsolately returns to the cab of his engine.

However, the Union has a plan. It seeks to steal Buster’s train and ride it back to Northern lines, burning bridges and wrecking track on its way. Buster makes chase on foot, and is soon the only person still going after the train. Still he doggedly pursues the Union men, hurtling via handcar, bicycle, and finally in another engine towards his goal.

Keaton is fascinated with how things work. He loves using stage machinery and camera tricks. In this film, set primarily out of doors, he is still indulging with problems negotiating space in time, but he is doing so in an epic way. He gets to play with real-life, full-sized trains. The trains speed up, slow down, reverse, change tracks, couple and uncouple, do everything but pirouette. Keaton makes these large, clumsy machines lead a kind of elephantine dance.

Buster chases the Yankees, who fortuitously have kidnapped his girlfriend to boot. Discovered to be alone, he must dash away and hide from those he pursued. He comes upon a house in a rainstorm, enters, and finds himself hiding beneath a tableful of plotting Union generals. He discovers their plans, and escapes, having found his girl there as well and rescuing her.

Now the chase is reversed. Buster steals back the General and flees south, with the Union in hot pursuit. Now it’s he and his girlfriend’s task to deter the Yankees. This is does with dimwitted assistance from her, which leads to her being throttled, briefly, before Buster kisses her. Ah, romance.

The girlfriend role is largely ornamental, propelling some of the plot and giving our hero a goal to achieve, that is, union with her. Marion Mack does just fine as the fair Annabelle Lee, taking a few tumbles and generally acting as straight woman. Buster’s real love affair is with the locomotive. He clambers all over it, plumbs its comic possibilities, clearing happy transforming

The crowning moment of absurdity arrives finally when a Union general orders the pursuit train to cross a bridge damaged by fire. Orders are followed, and the general and his army watch as the train teeters and crashes down into the river beneath. Cut back to the straight-faced pain in the general’s face, as he gestures listlessly for his men to go forward.

As Tim Dirks reports, this stunt cost $42,000 – the most expensive shot in silent film history. After the debacle at the bridge, the Southern forces charge against the Union soldiers and drive them back. Buster is now, finally, a hero.

The whole production was massively expensive, and the film did not recoup its cost in its initial run, in addition to being critically panned. It took decades for its dark sense of humor and its kinetic grace to be appreciated.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: Clara Bow in It.



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