The General is a peephole into history and by any definition an uncannily beautiful film. Indeed, for a first-time viewer, I would emphasize the beauty over the comedy. Many people are disappointed when they first see The General because they have heard that it is one of the funniest movies ever made. It isn’t. Keaton made many films that are tours de force of hilarity, including Sherlock Jr., The Navigator, and Seven Chances (all available from Kino). The General is something else, a historical parody set during the Civil War.
The comedy is rich but deliberate and insinuating. It aims not to split your sides but rather to elicit and sustain—for 78 minutes—a smile and sense of wonder, interrupted by several perfectly timed guffaws. The General belongs to at least three movie genres: comedy, historical, and chase. Most of it is constructed around a pursuit as relentless as any Bourne blowout, involving a Confederate locomotive, called the General, hijacked by Union spies.
In Keaton’s hands, the train is nothing more than a gigantic prop, an incessant inspiration to his inventive genius. Many passages are so suspenseful and minutely worked out that the gag, when it comes, is like the release of the General’s steam. It gives you a chance to breathe again.
The more comprehensive material on Keaton’s career, from last week’s round-up on The Cameraman, re-posted below. (Yes, I am enjoying the long weekend.)
From James Agee‘s famous Life Magazine article “Comedy’s Greatest Era,” first published in 1949 and since anthologized in the Library of America’s Agee reader:
[Keaton] was by his whole style and nature so much the most deeply “silent” of the silent comedians that even a smile was as deafeningly out of key as a yell. In a way his pictures are like a transcendent juggling act in which it seems that the whole universe is in exquisite flying motion and the one point of repose is the juggler’s effortless, uninterested face. Keaton’s face ranked almost with Lincoln’s as an early American archetype; it was haunting, handsome, almost beautiful, yet it was irreducibly funny. No other comedian could do as much with the dead-pan.
Keaton was a wonderfully resourceful inventor of mechanistic gags (he still spends much of his time fooling with Erector sets); as he ran afoul of locomotives, steamships prefabricated and over-electrified houses, he put himself through some of the hardest and cleverest punishment ever designed for laughs. In Sherlock Jr., boiling along on the handlebars of a motor cycle quite unaware that he has lost his driver, Keaton whips through city traffic, breaks up a tug-of-war, gets a shovel full of dirt in the face from each of a long line of Rockette-timed ditch diggers, approaches a log at high speed which is hinged open by dynamite precisely soon enough to let him through and, hitting an obstruction, leaves the handlebars like an arrow leaving a bow, whams through the window of a shack in which the heroin is about to be violated, and hits the heavy feet-first knocking him through the opposite wall. The whole sequence is as clean in motion as the trajectory of a bullet.
Much of the charm and edge of Keaton’s comedy, however, lay in the subtle leverages of expression he could work against his nominal dead pan. Trapped in the side wheel of a ferryboat, saving himself from drowning only by walking, then desperately running like a squirrel in a cage, his only real concern was, obviously, to keep his hat on. Confronted by Love, he was not as dead-pan as he was cracked up to be, either; there was an odd, abrupt motion of his head which suggested a horse nipping at a sugar lump…Keaton worked strictly for laughs, but his work came from so far inside a curious and original spirit that he achieved a great deal more besides.
Gilberto Perez in his excellent The Material Ghost: Films and Their Medium:
If all comedians are outsiders, Keaton is the outsider who will not give up the attempt to join in, to connect with others. Chaplin’s Tramp, by contrast, is more or less self-sufficient, “an aristocrat,” as Robert Warshow put it, “fallen on hard times.” Lloyd’s bespectacled democrat is a blundering free enterpriser, motivated by self-interest, patently inferior to his fellow men but aspiring to rise above them in the land of opportunity. Buster is unique in earnestly seeking a genuine togetherness. If he seems the loneliest of all comedians, it’s because he’s the one to whom companionship matters most.
That loneliness is hauntingly conveyed in those distant long shots, typical of Keaton, in which he appears as a tiny figure amid large empty surroundings. […] Keaton developed, no doubt intuitively, an original cinematic style beautifully suited to his purposes. His penchant for deep focus and long takes, his avoidance of close-ups and reductions of cuts — an approach unappreciatted by his contemporaries, who were schooled in Griffith’s editing and Eisenstein’s montage — assisted his rediscovery by film critics in the Sixties, when Andre Bazin anti-montage conceptions became widely influential.
Alt Screen Contributing Editor Jim Emerson, at his old old website, Cinepad:
Keaton’s comedy is ideally suited to the aesthetics and technology of the movies. It’s a medium brought to life by sprockets and shutters, lamps and lenses, and to Keaton the world itself is one huge, whirring, implacable machine.
But if Buster is forever at the mercy of the inexorable, indifferent forces around him, it’s his impassivity and adaptability to those forces that allow him to survive, and triumph, over adversity. Keaton can always roll with whatever punches the universe can throw at him.
Unlike Chaplin’s “Little Tramp,” Keaton never cries out for sympathy. The audience doesn’t need to be coaxed into identifying with him; the serene blankness of his face is like an empty screen onto which viewers can project their own hopes and fears. Like the audience, Keaton himself is an observer. He doesn’t rush blindly into action; he waits, watches, considers, taking in everything around him. And that’s his secret.
Richard Corliss for Time Magazine:
Watch [Keaton’s] beautiful, compact body as it pirouettes or pretzels in tortured permutations or, even more elegantly, stands in repose as everything goes crazy around it. Watch his mind as it contemplates a hostile universe whose violent whims Buster understands, withstands and, miraculously, tames. Watch his camera taking his picture (Keaton directed or supervised all his best films); it is as cool as the star it captured in its glass.
Keaton is usually enshrined with Charles Chaplin and Harold Lloyd in silent comedy’s holy trinity. In fact, his true film siblings are the old adventure stars Douglas Fairbanks and William S. Hart. Like Fairbanks, Keaton performed gorgeous, reckless stunts; his films were thrillers culminating in wild cyclones (Steamboat Bill, Jr.) and boat disasters (The Navigator). Like Hart, Keaton was the American loner: a dour, improbably heroic figure beneath a hostile sky.
He was famous for not smiling. In a lovely moment from Go West, a tough cowpoke orders him at gunpoint to smile; after considering whether he’d rather die, Keaton fingers the corners of his mouth into an awful grimace. But this blank visage was a versatile comic instrument. The giant eyes spoke all manner of emotions: ardor, terror, despair, sheer mulishness. The Keaton deadpan is stoic, heroic and as thoroughly modernist as a Beckett play or a Bauhaus facade. Next to him, Chaplin is a Victorian coquette, Lloyd a glad-handing politician.