27 September 2009

The General (1927)

d. Clyde Bruckman & Buster Keaton / USA / 75 mins.

"It's got to be so authentic it hurts," Buster Keaton is to have said to his staff before they began production on The General, his late-era silent comedy about a powerful locomotive and its hapless conductor who manages to deliver a strategic victory in the throes of the U.S. Civil War. The authenticity abounds: the mise-en-scene is steeped in it, as if there's a complete Mathew Brady photograph hovering just slightly off screen; the performances are sweet and playful, and Keaton the director and writer invokes his patented level of emotional simplicity that works well in his world of social and romantic abeyance.

And does it hurt? Anything but.

Today, and probably for the foreseeable future, Keaton will be remembered primarily for The General. Is this his best film? I don't know. It's not my personal favorite (Sherlock Jr. wins my heart), but then again, Keaton's tremendous talent is evinced by the fact that he made multiple masterpieces — each different from the rest, but nonetheless, discernibly his — and the title of his "best" is bestowed on different films by different critics.Where the conversation becomes tangled in respect to The General is sort of a strange place. I think you can read the film two ways: it's either a great film made by Buster Keaton, or it's a great Buster Keaton film.

The difference appears negligible or tenuous, but the two are profoundly different. I've found those who don't hold the film in the highest of regards typically don't believe it's the latter, and that position has been held for decades. When it premiered in 1927, audiences and critics rejected it because it fell below expectations for "a Buster Keaton film." They asked: where are the belly laughs, the pratfalls, the zany stunts and acrobatic high jinks that define the comedian's work, that make him truly great? When compared to his hilarious treasures before, the film stands the chance of appearing prosaic. Personally, I think there is enough of a thematic base (and certainly enough comedy) to argue it's a "great Buster Keaton film"; but even if it's not, I think its greatness as a film, one that happens to be made by Buster Keaton, is beyond dispute. It is clean and ambitious and efficient and enthralling, something that is both of this world and so exacting as to seem of a very different one as well. It has a structure and narrative flow that is largely outside anything else Keaton attempted.

That feeling seems rooted in its size: a genuine, and unexpected, epic. "What is surprising is not that there are so few [silent comedy epics]," Walter Kerr writes in The Silent Clowns, "but that there are any at all. For there had been no such form until these two [Chaplin and Keaton] saw a way to it." Chaplin, as usual, got there first, with The Gold Rush, released in 1925. It's a big and bold blend of pathos and silliness, plucking the Tramp from his normal territory and relabeling him as The Lone Prospector, searching for gold and love in the desolate North Slope. Although Chaplin's films until that time do not feel limited in the strictest sense of the word, they do feel comfortable in the boundaries of a singular community. The thrill of The Gold Rush, its perfection aside, is a filmmaking spirit as adventuresome and exploratory as the history it recounts.

So why then, to twist a phrase, does size matter at all? Kerr suggests it's because the epic and the comedy do not go hand-in-hand. Epics are fraught with "serious implications and historical moments and a hero who can withstand the strain by matching it with his ambition." Humor can crumple under massive scale because the comic hero becomes lost in a blur of his surroundings. And so much of comedy is played out in the nooks and crannies of narratives, detached from the world and relatively isolated. To make a silent comedy epic is to create something that candidly honors character and story in a way that is not as superficial as most comedy where such things are dispensable as long as there's a laugh at the end of the tunnel.

Chaplin may have officially gotten there first, but Keaton had been working toward it all along, in a more tactile and cinematic way than Chaplin. Most of Keaton short two-reel films, made and released between 1920 and 1923, have the vision and scope of something in the five- to six-reel range, and he'd been exploring the limits of space along the X- and Y-axes in nearly every film that preceded this. Our Hospitality, his first feature film that was not cobbled together from linked short films, was set in the nineteenth century and incorporated much of the technology and attitudes of its time. Sherlock Jr. rose up like a tower at the intersection of reality and celluloid, and Go West brought Keaton out into the unpopulated prairies of the American frontier.

This story came to Keaton by way of Clyde Bruckman, his chief prop-man and frequent writing and directing collaborator. Bruckman, serving here officially as co-director, had spotted William Pittenger's The Great Locomotive Chase, a historical account about a group of Union soldiers who planned to sneak into the South, hijack a train, and breakdown the Confederacy's abilities of transportation and communication. Anyone who knows Keaton even through his choice of films could have predicted an enthusiastic response: a plot set in the past (a favorite time-frame for him) and involving a train (a favorite mode of transportation). Keaton chose to invert the drama by setting the point-of-view from that of the Confederacy, a decision that works thematically and provides no contextual controversy because it's not rooted in any political motivation and instead thrives on the dramatic irony of the heroes being well-known losers. Keaton's character, train engineer Johnnie Gray, is in love with Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack), who wants to see him enlist in the army at the outbreak of the Civil War. Johnnie suffers a double setback when the South determines that he is, ironically, more valuable as an engineer than as a soldier and his failure to be recruited is misread by Annabelle. Their relationship falls apart, and he and his beloved train, the General, go to work for the South. When she and the train are kidnapped, however, he must venture into enemy territory to save them.

To capture the era, the aforementioned attention to detail was staggering: Keaton's crew built railroad cars, trolleys, stagecoaches, wagons, and houses for the sets; he had intentions of filming in the South, securing an entire tract of railroad in Tennessee and, quite remarkably, receiving permission to use the original General locomotive. (They bowed out upon hearing the film would be a comedy.) Instead, Keaton found a place to work in Oregon, where he found equally suitable railway tracks, put two trains on loan and bought a third, which he destroys with technical glee in the film's grand and fiery finale.

The bizarre contradiction inside The General is that it feels both older than its production date of 1926 yet also years ahead of its time while possessing, as Kerr notes, "the peculiar quality of dating at all":

We quite forget that we are looking at work done in the 1920s and tend to identify the pictures we are watching with the period of the narrative. This is only in part due to the fact that it was a costume film to begin with; many costume films of the 1920s are transparently sham today. It was more nearly due to Keaton's integral relationship with his background. Both Keaton and Chaplin had developed personal images iconographic enough to be timeless. Chaplin had developed his—baggy trousers, mustache, cane, derby—resolutely, carrying it with him wherever he went. Keaton, more naked, had made a virtue—even a philosophical fetish—of his very adaptability; he could swap one costume for another and continue to ride with its outlines. He was wedded to matter, and no matter that the matter changed shape.
Past and present, comedy and epic, underdog and victory, North and South, expectation and delivery—the recurring motif of The General is its multiple genuine thematic contrasts, and perhaps the most noticeable is the tension between Keaton's desperately sought realism and inherent artificiality. If there's a case to be made that The General is not Keaton's funniest film, or his second or third funniest (and I think such a case can be made rather easily), there's an equally strong case to be made that it is his most expertly crafted and deftly geometric film, both in the cinematography and the plot. Keaton observes a remarkably strict and symmetrical five-act structure for the story—introduction, chase, rescue, chase, conclusion—that is so clearly delineated over the course of the film that it invokes an almost Shakespearean rhythm. It's often said that Keaton defied the odds and proved it possible to create a dramatic chase using only trains, which are limited in mobility by where the tracks go, although the reality should be considered as even more of a feat than that. Keaton delivers not only one good chase but two, into the North and out of the North, each unique and with fundamentally different obstacles. Neither ever seems to dissipate in excitement.

The symmetry and geometry of the plot are further reflected in the framing and cinematography. The General utilizes an entire countryside for its adventure, the dual directions of the train tracks and the world out into the fields. (In one brilliant shot, Johnnie chops wood for the engine while the Northern army advances in the opposite direction behind him.) Kerr says comedy and epic are diametrically opposing forces because "the little man becomes difficult to find in so much mass," but Keaton avoids this problem by letting the film alternate between spacious and claustrophobic. The camera makes good use of the small confines inside the trains and rooms, and goes out of its way to avoid losing the sight of Keaton. If the film doesn't feel like an epic at all, it's no doubt due to the fact that Keaton had already made a career of being the diminutive man against larger and more foreboding elements; The General is simply a natural extension of that.

As is the case with many of the films we treasure today, The General was a bit of a disaster upon its release. In her book Buster Keaton: Cut to the Chase, Marion Meade writes that its premiere kept being pushed back week after week. Test screenings went badly; it had been more than sixty years since the Civil War, but the topic touched a nerve with many audiences members, who recoiled at its use of war as prelude to comedy. Critics—most, though not all—seemed to need their thesauri to identify new and harsh adjectives. United Artists was seen as a poor distributor (a second blow to Keaton's producer, Joseph M. Schenck, as the film's production price tag ballooned to more than $750,000, or nearly twice the proposed budget), and the title was seen as inadvertently vague and elusive. Yet Keaton always held it in his highest esteem, and in the end he had good reason to do so. Whether you see The General as a sort of film expected from Keaton, or whether you see it as something below his typical comedic acerbity, this is a film for the ages—a true silent masterpiece.


FilmDr 28 September, 2009  

Nice analysis. I've been waiting for this one, because I often show off The General in a film studies class, and it consistently gets a lively response from students. I was struck by the treatment of Annabelle Lee. She is profoundly useless to Johnnie during the action scenes--in marked contrast to Keaton's balletic abilities in single-handedly operating a train. I've heard of the film having a Baroque structure in the way it sets up two parallel and yet opposite journeys in the first half and the latter half of the film. Also, isn't it true that Keaton had his crew play baseball during breaks in much of the shooting?

MovieMan0283 30 September, 2009  

Really interesting observations here. I find I often have trouble considering a comedy "great" if it isn't formally ambitious in some way. Funniness and greatness seem to be on different planes, ones which intersect but not extensively. (Mor recent - meaning post 60s - comedies I would consider great include Annie Hall and The Big Lebowski, both of which are visually rich and structurally ambitious.) So I suppose I laugh harder at other Keaton films, but I certainly think this is his greatest work. Although I think I find it funnier than you, and apparently many others, do.

T.S. 30 September, 2009  

@FilmDr — Thanks for the thoughts. I agree with you on Annabelle Lee; she is, for the most part, useless to the film, and even her initial scorn for Johnnie is rather ridiculous in its superficiality and the fact that it's not followed through to its logical conclusion. (It might be Keaton's only film where he plays a character who is considered fundamentally valuable in its trade and skill, but still he doesn't come out as a "man" in the eyes of the woman.)

I like the structure, and I think that's one of the film's most endearing elements. And yes, I've heard that anecdote about Keaton playing baseball with his crew in the Oregon town where they shot the film; I've also heard that his athleticism really wowed the locals. :)

@MovieMan — Thanks. I think what you say about funniness and greatness existing (mostly) on different planes is true, and I'd even take it a step further and say that it applies to a multitude of genres, particularly as far as cinema is concerned. Comedy is certainly affected by it because I think comedies in general tend to be less ambition in form than drama, musicals, science fiction, etc. But the two you cite are certainly among the great comedies of the last fifty years, and certainly The Generalis among the greats period.

Sam Juliano,  16 November, 2009  

Of course this is a definitive review of one of teh greatest of all screen comedires, and arguably Keaton's masterpiece. And yes, as you say, it's the one he'll be best-remembered by, even if college film students continue to sing the praises of SHERLOCK JR.

You are sorely missed on the blogging circles, that much I can assure you. Of course it is fully understood that you have a busy life, and there isn't always time for this.

But I wanted to say hello, and hope we'll be touching bases soon. The best always.

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