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Buster Keaton

 
 
 
   
             
   
             
       
 
 

THE GENERAL

                     
 

Buster Keaton Productions, 1927.  Directed by Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton.  Camera:  Bert Haines.  With Buster Keaton, Marion Mack, Glen Cavender, Jim Farley, Frederick Vroom, Charles Henry Smith, Frank Barnes, Joe Keaton, Mike Donlin, Tom Nawn, Henry Baird, Joe Bricher, Jimmy Bryant, Sergeant Bukowski, Jack Dempster, Keith Fennell, Budd Fine, Eddie Foster, Ronald Gilstrap, Frank Hagney, Ray Hanford, Jackie Hanlon, Al Hanson, Anthony Harvey, Edward Hearn.

Buster Keaton's The General is in the very odd position of being one of the classic silent comedies, while also being one of the least typical. When Keaton made it towards the end of the silent era, fast-paced panto-mimic comedy had become commonplace. Commonplace, that is, to audiences of the 20's. To us, today, the best of it seems not only incredibly ingenious and funny, but also truly creative. But look at any magazine of the late 20's, and you will find any number of great visual comedies being passed off as "just more of the same," while pedestrian little situation comedies, relying on lengthy dialogue titles and involved plotting, were rating rave reviews for being "different" and "intelligent."

This demand for something new in comedy may have been what prompted Keaton to make The General.  Far from being a mere answer to a public demand, it is still full of fine pantomime and visual comedy. But it is slower-paced than any other Keaton comedy, the gags are more deliberately spaced, and there's far more substance to the story. Luckily, the story is so good on its own, and so well handled, that the reduced comedy content is amply compensated for.  And we should explain that even with fewer laughs than usual, it was still funnier than any three or four of today's comedies bundled together!

The General refers not to Keaton, but to his locomotive, and the story is essentially a true one—the tale of the daring Civil War raid led by Captain Anderson, a Northern spy who penetrated Southern lines to steal a locomotive and wreck communications. Walt Disney told this same story—quite seriously—in his The Great Locomotive Chase. And yet despite its comic content, despite having hundreds of soldier extras acting like the Keystone Cops, Keaton's version was an exciting thriller too-and spun a pretty lucid account of the adventure.

The climactic battle scene was staged on a mammoth scale worthy of Griffith, and was exceptionally well photographed. The film ran for eight reels, and seven of those reels were devoted to a chase—first of all, Buster chasing the spies, and then the spies chasing Buster! No movie chase has ever been sustained so long, so successfully, or with such an expert intermingling of genuine thrills and hilarious comic situations.

The funniest single moment in the film must surely be the most expensive gag on record. 'To cut off the Northern pursuit, Buster has set fire to an enormous trestle-bridge spanning a wide river. By the time the locomotive, with its cargo of munitions and troops, arrives on the scene, the bridge is blazing merrily. The engineer hesitates, when along comes a Northern officer with a hundred or more mounted soldiers. "That bridge isn't burned enough to stop you," he says. 'You go ahead, and we'll ford the river."  As the cavalry descend into the valley, the train puffs confidently forward onto the now-swaying bridge. Half way across, it gives way, and train and bridge plunge into the river in a holocaust of hissing steam, burning timbers, exploding shells, and struggling men.  From this carnage, there is a quick cut to a close-up of the bewildered officer who gave the order.  His expression shows quite plainly that he is not at all concerned at the havoc he has caused, but is just annoyed at having been shown to be wrong!  Petulantly, be orders his men to advance.  A scene that plays much better than it reads, it remains one of the screen's highpoints of purely visual comedy.

And The General, sadly, represents just about the last really great comedy of the silent screen. It was co-directed by Keaton and his old friend Clyde Bruckman, who came to a particularly tragic end in the mid-1950's.  Broke, depressed, believing himself forgotten and unwanted, he borrowed Keaton's gun and shot himself in a Hollywood restaurant.  He was unaware that The General was still studied, and enjoyed, the world over as a masterpiece of screen comedy.

Classics of the Silent Screen
by Joe Franklin
The Citadel Press, 1959

Poster artwork courtesy of Pete.  Additional photos courtesy of Gary and Sever.