not in our stars, but in ourselves
It occurred to me today: I have been neglecting Buster Keaton for entirely too long here. Yes, I have a sentimental attachment to Charlie Chaplin, but it’s indisputable that Keaton was smarter, funnier, more daring and visionary – so I decided to correct my months of neglect with The General (1926). Though not a great success at the time of its release (idiots), it is now afforded the proper praise and worship that it deserves.
The title refers not to any sort of military man, but to one of Johnnie Gray’s (Keaton) two loves: a locomotive, of which he is the engineer. His other love is Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack). It’s 1861 in Marietta, Georgia, and the War of Northern Aggression* (as the locals probably called it) has just broken out. Annabelle’s father and brother both declare that they’ll enlist with the Confederate Army – and Annabelle expects Johnnie to do the same. He tries. Really, he does. Alas, the gentleman in the recruitment office thinks that Johnnie is much more useful to the South as an engineer, and refuses to let him sign up. Annabelle assumes he’s lying, and tells him she doesn’t want to see him unless/until he’s in uniform. Poor Johnnie. Some time later, Union soldiers manage to steal both his loves – the General train and Annabelle inside it – and Johnnie goes from meek-mannered train engineer to one-man resistance army.
Many silent film comedians risked life and limb for their gags, but Keaton was a true stuntman – among other things. In scene after scene, he scrambles all over a moving train: running on top of it, balancing himself on the cowcatcher, hurling large and awkward props onto the tracks in order to disrupt the train pursuing his, leaping over a fire to plummet into a river, etc., etc. And while there have been few comedians before or since who were as naturally funny as Keaton – that Stoneface is lethal, I tell you – there have probably never been as many physically gifted performers outside the realm of ballet, performers who push their bodies to the breaking point to create an illusion of lightness, joy, danger, whatever the case may be. Our actors are often so soft nowadays, with most of the daring work done by stunt doubles and stand-ins and the like. Not so for Keaton. Having literally grown up performing pratfalls in vaudeville acts, he was a seasoned pro by the time he started making movies – thrilling and delighting audiences in equal measure with his comical but obviously dangerous (or at least painful) stunts.
That brings me to something that struck me throughout The General: as funny as it is, and as surprisingly touching as it is, it’s actually a kickass action movie. I’m not the first person to notice this, of course, but it seems to me that countless action flicks since The General have sought to repeat its blend of physical daring, comedy, romance, and (apparent) effortlessness. While I am, admittedly, something of a fuddy-duddy, I am still and always amazed by the scene in which an actual train actually goes hurtling from an actual bridge into an actual river. No special effects, no props, no tricks. Just like Keaton’s own stunts – these guys were risking an awful lot to make their little six- or seven-reelers.
Another thing that struck me was how this film is probably the best depiction of true romance that I’ve ever seen. Unlike Chaplin, who ignored (in his film) how utterly frustrating love can be, and instead chose to cast it as some sort of pure and noble quest, Keaton shows the more infuriating side of being in love. Sometimes you love someone to distraction, but you also want to wring her neck. It happens. Sometimes you’re overtaken by how beautiful and sweet your love can be, but then she decides not to use a piece of firewood because it has a hole in it. You still risk life and limb to save her, and to be with her, but you cannot believe what a moron she is sometimes. That’s real love. And it’s a joy to see.
*For whatever reason, Hollywood used to love making movies sympathetic to the South. Perhaps because the South was the underdog, or perhaps because they had better clothes, but films from The Birth of a Nation (1915) to Gone With the Wind (1939) all give us the idea that the Old South was full of genteel families, contented slaves, and the kind of charm that hasn’t existed before or since. I don’t think it was due to any particular sympathy for slavery, as Hollywood wasn’t any more notably racist than anywhere else in the U.S. (though that’s really not saying much, obviously). Maybe the South was just more fun for the art director and the costume designer; we Yankees have been more austere, historically speaking.