- The Washington Times - Friday, July 25, 2003

Buster Keaton’s great silent comedy “The General” (Sunday and Monday at the American Film Institute Silver Theatre, with live organ accompaniment by Ray Brubacher) boasts the most satisfying single demonstration of leverage in movie history.

Mr. Keaton plays the heroically resourceful and persistent engineer Johnnie Gray, employed on the Western & Atlantic Flyer in Georgia as the Civil War begins. Johnnie is pursuing his beloved locomotive, the General, after it is stolen by Union agents who exploit it as a moving platform for sabotage.

After failing to catch up by foot, handcar or unbalanced wooden bicycle, Johnnie borrows a two-car pursuit train of his own — engine and tender. Trying to clear the tracks of debris left by the fleeing train thieves, he finds himself riding the cowcatcher. A retrieved railroad tie is balanced clumsily in his lap. Another tie lies just across the track ahead. With sure aim, Johnnie hoists the tie in both hands and flings it at one end of the obstructing tie, which lifts off the track just in time for the train to proceed on its course.

A good deal of what makes Buster Keaton a movie immortal is preserved in this sight gag. Although one assumes the prop ties were lighter than normal, the stunt is not cheated through optical tricks or editing. It works because Mr. Keaton and his associates made a point of getting the geometry right, including the camera angle: Positioned slightly ahead of the performer along the railroad track, the camera allows us to see the maneuver performed in real time. It’s almost as if one’s theater seat were moving backward with the camera platform.

Philosophically, this gag reminds you of the singular patience and stoicism Mr. Keaton’s comedies tend to lyricize: A solution to every obstacle may present itself; don’t despair, just be ready to act at the opportune moment.

Mr. Keaton, who entered the movies almost casually in 1917 after a vaudeville act with his parents, Joe and Myra, had been retired, perfected a comic silhouette that was eloquently linear. Typically, a stationary Buster Keaton is posed upright or slightly tilted against the horizon, with his gaze fixed upon some distant (and perhaps threatening) prospect. It’s prudent to keep your eyes open, preferably focused far down the road, because life is full of potential obstacles and setbacks.

A devoted family, the Keatons did a roughhouse slapstick act in which Mr. Keaton, who became a regular as a toddler, frequently was treated by his dad as a prop valise, a floor mop or a premature Frisbee. The Gerry Society, which investigated child labor abuses in the theatrical profession, was always suspicious of the Keatons, but the child was a genuinely enthusiastic performer, and a hint of Providence became part of his legend.

The 3-year-old Buster Keaton miraculously survived a cyclone when his parents were performing in the Midwest: He was blown out of their rooming house but landed safely on a street four blocks away. Such freak occurrences later became indispensable to his comedy, and the cyclone itself was simulated during the finale of “Steamboat Bill, Jr.,” his last great silent picture, in 1928.

Although the cinematic chase sequence has remained a movie staple for more than a century, “The General” has never been surpassed as the greatest chase comedy. In the 1960s, with “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” and “The Great Race,” directors Stanley Kramer and Blake Edwards, respectively, left irrefutable evidence that more could be much, much less. The standard running times of “The General” vary from 75 to 85 minutes, but it continues to demonstrate that less can be more, even while incorporating an epic re-enactment of the Civil War period as a backdrop to the train chase.

The movie is cleverly and conscientiously linear even before the action is concentrated on railroad tracks. Johnnie is introduced as a young man with two loves: his locomotive and his sweetheart, Annabelle Lee (the game and delightful Marian Mack). Her framed photo holds a place of honor in the engine itself. While paying a call on Annabelle, Johnnie is followed by two hero-worshipping boys, who suggest ducklings. Inadvertently, Annabelle ends up strolling behind the ducklings. Johnnie becomes aware of her presence seconds after knocking on her front door.

News of Fort Sumter creates urgency about enlisting in the Confederate army, at least in the minds of Annabelle, her father and her brother. Eager to ingratiate himself, Johnnie attempts to become the first in line, requiring Mr. Keaton to improvise two shortcuts back to Main Street. He starts at the head of the line but becomes a picture of dejection when refused an application.

A certain amount of expedient obliviousness governs this plot point: Johnnie is not informed that his job as an engineer is regarded as an honorable exemption; no one bothers to ease his mind, including a presiding officer who later reappears as the commanding officer whom Johnnie must alert to the advance of Union troops.

The scenario comes full circle in several respects. The locomotive chase is designed to double back harmoniously. For about half an hour, Johnnie pursues his stolen train. Having found the General at a Union supply depot and stolen it back, he is obliged to outrace Union pursuers. By that time, Annabelle is his most precious (and sometimes troublesome) cargo.

The sabotage tricks that blocked his progress at the outset, as the action moved from right to left in most shots, must be adopted with humorous variations by Johnnie himself on the home leg, where the chase becomes mostly left to right. It culminates in a spectacular bridge collapse that deposits one of the pursuit locomotives in a river. For decades after, movie fans touring near Cottage Grove, Ore., the principal location, would make pilgrimages to the crash site, reportedly so overgrown now that it’s difficult to reach.

Happily, “The General” itself remains readily accessible, and a presentation at the Silver with appropriate organ commentary should enhance all its virtues. Buster Keaton was just 32 at the time the picture was released. During the 1920s, he completed 18 shorts and 10 features. No other body of work approaches Mr. Keaton’s for reconciling reliably funny business with an exploration of the stylistic peculiarities of the film medium and general metaphysical speculation about human destiny and survival.

The Keaton response to adversity and perplexity defies improvement: Observe, improvise, cope and get on down the road.


TITLE: “The General” (1927)

RATING: No MPAA rating (a silent classic originally released decades before the advent of a rating system — some depictions of Civil War combat but suitable for all ages)

CREDITS: Directed by Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman. Scenario by Mr. Keaton, Mr. Bruckman, Al Boasberg and Charles Smith. Photography by J. Devereux Jennings and Bert Haines

RUNNING TIME: 84 minutes

WHERE: American Film Institute Silver Theatre

WHEN: Sunday at 2:30 p.m. and Monday at 6:30 p.m.

TICKETS: $8.50 for the general public; $7.50 for AFI members, students and seniors (65 and older)

PHONE: 301/495-6700 for prerecorded program information


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