Of the three great American clowns of the silent era, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, Keaton has emerged, by and large, as the cinephiles’ favourite over Chaplin, who was the greater star of his day and held the pre-eminent position in critics’ eyes for the first half of the last century. Much of this revival rests on Andrew Sarris’ championing of Keaton in his influential book The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968. Sarris places Keaton (as he did Chaplin) in his personal Pantheon of the greatest directors, writing,
The difference between Keaton and Chaplin is the difference between prose and poetry, between the aristocrat and the tramp, between adaptability and dislocation, between the function of things and the meaning of things, eccentricity and mysticism, between man as a machine and man as angel, between girl as convention and girl as ideal…. There are those who would go further and claim Keaton as pure cinema as opposed to Chaplin’s essentially theatrical cinema. (1)
Keaton’s sensibility and persona, then, adapt better to the modern viewer’s sense of the world’s cruelty, absurdity and randomness. Chaplin’s socially conscious and humanist comedy, posits a world of clear right and wrong, where there is a place for an ultimate justice. Although both Chaplin and Keaton were remarkably gifted physical performers, Keaton’s gags rely on a combination of his amazing physical abilities with the apparatus of the cinema – editing, pacing and camera placement. The General (Keaton and Clyde Bruckman, 1926), which he considered his favourite, was Keaton’s last independently produced film and in many ways presents the apotheosis of his style.
The General tells the story of Johnnie Gray (Keaton), a Tennessean railroad engineer who is pressured by his fiancé, Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack), to join the Confederate army. He is deeply disappointed when he is not allowed to enlist as the South values his skills on the railway more highly than his potential as a soldier. His chance at redemption in Annabelle’s eyes, however, is not long in coming. A group of Yankees steal his train, The General, with Annabelle on board, planning to destroy supply lines between Chattanooga, Tennessee and Atlanta, Georgia. Johnnie immediately goes in hot pursuit of the train and the lady. This simple premise is the basis for some of Keaton’s most sublime slapstick and gags.
Gorgeously filmed in the mountains of Oregon, the film frames Keaton’s amazing tricks with a predominance of long traveling shots using the steam engine and tracks as the guiding elements of the film’s visual and comic style. A cannon’s trajectory is foiled by the curves of railway. The tracks are blocked and unblocked at the nick of time. Rail bridges hold and are blown at the most opportune times. Keaton moves through this threatening space of speed, iron and danger with both precarious clumsiness and breathtaking accuracy. After the more abstract dimensions of his short films, Keaton tried to ground the gags in his feature films more in reality (2). He was interested in making his comedy interact with and respond to the physics of the real world, just as he was interested in using the camera to expand beyond the confines of theatrical comedy.
The General was based upon a true story of a daring Union raid on a Confederate train led by a civilian, James Andrews. The conspirators were caught and later hanged by the Southern army. William A. Pittenger had written a popular account of the story in 1863 called The Great Locomotive Chase. This formed the basis of Keaton’s adaptation. The main change that Keaton made to the story was to tell it from the point-of-view of a Confederate engineer, saying “You can always make villains out of the Northerners, but you cannot make a villain of the South” (3). His attitude reflected the sense of sympathy, prevalent at the time, for the South as a defeated people, more than a truly political stance. Keaton felt that the film worked better dramatically as an underdog tale, complete with a happy ending. In a 1960 interview he would criticise Walt Disney Pictures’ 1956 version of the story, The Great Locomotive Chase (Francis Lyon), for not following his lead in switching the point-of-view (4).
Still, I believe there is a politics present in the film. Johnny’s motivations for stopping the Northerners are solely to impress Annabelle and to save his other “love”, The General. Johnnie and the conspirators switch uniforms, roles, and levels of competency so fluidly that any conventional notion of valour, heroism or even rightness of purpose is undermined. Keaton expert Noël Carroll points out that the film is divided into roughly two parts. In the first Johnnie pursues The General and everything goes wrong. In the second section, where Johnnie pursues the Northern gang, many of the same situations and circumstances are revisited, this time with Johnnie in complete control. He argues The General deals with, “The most recurrent themes in Keaton’s narratives and gags: the question of mastering and understanding causal relations in a world of things, on the one hand, and the question of correctly locating and precisely orienting oneself within one’s environment on the other hand” (5).
Johnnie’s success and the union raid’s failure do not have any moral significance. Beyond the genius of the jokes and the exhilaration of his cinematic technique, Keaton’s great insight into modern life is that values are relative and subject to change, and are also based on the silliest of human vanities and the flimsiest whims of chance.
- Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968, Da Capo Press, New York, 1996, p. 62.
- Robert Knopf, The Theater and Cinema of Buster Keaton, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1999, p. 17.
- Tom Dardis, The Man Who Wouldn’t Lie Down, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1979, p. 139.
- Howard Feinstein, “Buster Keaton: An Interview”, Buster Keaton Interviews, ed. Kevin Sweeney, University of Mississippi Press, Jackson, 2007, p. 137.
- Noël Carroll, Interpreting the Moving Image, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1998, p. 79.
The General (1926 USA 74 mins)
Prod Co: Buster Keaton Productions/Joseph M. Schenck Productions Dir, Scr: Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman Phot: Bert Haines, Dev Jennings Ed: J. S. Kell
Cast: Buster Keaton, Marion Mack, Glen Cavender, Jim Farley, Frederick Vroom, Charles Henry Smith, Frank Barnes, Joe Keaton