Wednesday, January 14, 2009


Ironically, Buster Keaton’s all-time favorite film comedy “The General” (1927) flopped at the box office during its initial release. Critics and audiences alike panned this superlative American Civil War saga. Most of the critics didn’t think it was “funny” or that Keaton was “funny.” Forty years later critics hailed Keaton’s film as a masterpiece, and it ranks among the top ten on virtually every critical short list of silents. Unlike his closest rival the English comic Charles Chaplin, who ingratiated himself with audiences as the homeless little “Tramp,” Keaton remained aloof, never cracked a smile and earned the nickname “The Great Stone Face.” Not surprisingly, Keaton’s trademark is that he consciously strives not to appear “funny” and therein lays the humor in his work. In other words, he doesn’t draw attention to his buffoonery. Keaton is the kind of comic who wouldn’t laugh at his own joke.

The fun of watching any Keaton film is the deadpan acrobat’s titanic struggle to gain mastery over some form of machinery and adapt to the people around him. For example, in “Steamboat Bill, Jr,” Buster must win the girl, reconcile with both his father and her father, and master operating a steamboat in the midst of a cyclone. This theme recurs in his best films, including include “Our Hospitality” (1923), “The Navigator” (1924), “Sherlock Jr.” (1924), “Steamboat Bill Jr.,” (1928), and “The Cameraman “(1928), More than any of these Keaton topped himself with “The General.” He must operate the trains by himself when the intrigue starts and he continues to operate the trains with minimal help.

Introverted railroad engineer Johnnie Gray (Buster Keaton) has two loves: a locomotive named ‘The General” and Annabelle Lee (Marion Mac), his girlfriend. While visiting Annabelle, he learns that the Confederacy has fired on Fort Sumter. Annabelle’s father and brother storm off to the recruiting station to perform their patriotic duty and sign up. Johnnie takes a short-cut to beat them there and be first one in line. Complications arise when Confederate officials refuse to enlist him. They judge Johnnie more valuable to the South as train engineer rather than a soldier. Repeatedly, Johnnie tries to enlist, and they finally give him the boot. “If you lose this war, don't blame me,” Johnnie complains as he walks away. Annabelle’s father and brother spot him leaving and urge Johnnie to join them. Johnnie remembers what happened to him in the enlistment office and walks off massaging his sore rump from where he has been kicked. Johnnie is too ashamed to tell Annabelle the truth. Annabelle’s father and brother both sign up and go off to fight the war. Meanwhile, she refuses to talk to Johnnie until he is in uniform.

A year later, at a Union encampment north of Chattanooga, General Thatcher (Jim Farley) meets with his chief spy, Captain Anderson. Anderson (Glen Cavender) assures Thatcher he knows every foot of the Southern railroad between Marietta and Chattanooga, and he cannot fail on his mission with ten hand-picked men. They travel dressed as civilians. During dinner at Big Shanty, Georgia, they strike and hijack Johnnie’s train. Worst, Annabelle is caught in the baggage car and Anderson’s men take her hostage. Johnnie pursues them on foot, by hand-car, and later by bicycle, but he cannot catch them. He stumbles into another station and commandeers the locomotive called the ‘Texas’ and pursues Anderson with what he thinks is a train load of Confederate troops. He learns too late the troop train wasn’t coupled to the locomotive. At one point, Johnnie hooks a flatcar with a mortar and tries to blast the Union spies ahead of him on ‘The General.’ Johnnie almost blows himself up. Anderson and his men don’t stop because they believe Johnnie has them outnumbered.

Eventually, Anderson realizes Johnnie is alone and Johnnie has to abandon the Texas. He gets lost in the woods during a thunderstorm and turns up like a drenched rat at a house where the Union Army is about to convene to discuss their plans. Johnnie sneaks into the house and raids dinner table. He avoids narrowly being caught by climbing underneath the table and eavesdrops on the Union plan to attack the Confederates. At the same time, he spots Annabelle who is being escorted into the house by two troops. After the Union officers conclude their meeting, Johnnie knocks out a guard, steals his uniform, finds Annabelle and they try to sneak through Union lines. Johnnie decides to steal his locomotive—the General—back and Anderson and his men pursue him in the ‘Texas.’ Johnnie manages to stay ahead of them long enough to burn the Rock River Bridge. When a Union train crosses the bridge, the structure buckles and train and trestle crash into the river. Johnnie discovers the Union officer he knocked unconscious in the cab of the General is General Thatcher. The Southern General awards Johnnie a commission as a lieutenant. Annabelle is as overjoyed as Johnnie until they have to pause in their kissing for him to salute an entire army of privates marching past him.

Keaton’s timing is impeccable throughout “The General.” The scene where Johnnie loads the mortar on the flat car and the muzzle dips so that it is aimed at Johnnie while the fuse burns is hilarious. Miraculously, Johnnie’s locomotive cruises off onto another set of tracks, while the mortar trundles along the original set and the cannon ball narrowly misses the Union spies on their train. Later, Anderson’s men follow a switchback that takes them onto a towering trestle where they halt their locomotive temporarily and bombard Johnnie with railroad ties as his engine runs under the trestle.

Keaton drew “The General” from a true-life Civil War incident where Union spies stole the eponymous locomotive. William A. Pittenger wrote about it in a book entitled “Daring and Suffering: A History of the Great Railway Adventure.” Tom Dardis quoted Keaton in his biography “Keaton: The Man Who Wouldn’t Lie Down” as bragging, “No pains were spared to make the film as authentic as they possibly could.” Keaton converted a tragedy into a comedy for the Confederacy. Keaton explained his reason for this decision: “You can always make villains out of the Northerners, but you cannot make a villain out of the South.” Moreover, the stone-faced comic tried to use the authentic locomotive “The General” that had been housed in a Chattanooga railroad station. Originally, he had sought to shoot on the actual terrain, but he hated the scenery and wound up reenacting history in Oregon with 500 Oregon State Guardsmen impersonating Union and Confederate troops. Reportedly, the money shot of the collapsing bridge cost Keaton and company $42-thousand dollars.

The important thing for contemporary audiences to gleam from “The General” is that it was made with no digital computer enhanced effects. Virtually everything in “The General” is genuine. Keaton drove the train and they actually destroyed the bridge that the train sets on during the big battle. There were no models or mock-ups made for this film.

Keaton’s “The General” dwarfs the widescreen 1956 Walt Disney produced release “The Great Locomotive Chase” with Fess Parker and Jeffrey Hunter and depicts the events from the Northern perspective. Indeed, “The General” is one of my all-time favorite movies. The Library of Congress preserved “The General” in 1989 in the National Film Registry as a film that qualified as "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."