Those of us who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, when television was awash in classic movies (Million-Dollar Movie, Shock Theater, The Late Show, and Silents Please were among the first schools in cinema—just ask Scorsese, Spielberg, or Coppola), are aghast to find that our children are often reluctant to watch black-and-white films, let alone silent ones. Especially those deemed to be among the greatest ever made. The imprimatur of the experts turns pleasure into obligation, and suddenly the notion of sitting through a comedy that had for decades convulsed audiences takes on all the promise of reading The Merry Wives of Windsor—the most annoying and witless of Shakespeare’s plays, yet once upon a time thought to be a riot.
Still, for anyone who has never seen a silent picture or, worse, seen only speeded-up pie-throwing excerpts, Kino International has an offer you can’t refuse: a spotless new transfer of Buster Keaton’s 1926 epic, The General. Kino initially released a DVD of The General in 1999, which looks like every other version I’ve seen in theaters or at home—the focus is soft, and the tinted film stock is faded, scratched, and jumpy. The new edition, part of a two-disc set (most of the extras concern the historical basis for the story), is pristine, sharply focused, stable, and gorgeous.
Gorgeous is important, because 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.
The General’s engineer, Johnny Grey (Keaton), spends the first half racing after it—on foot, handcar, bicycle, and another train—and, once he has stolen it back, the second half in flight from the Texas, a train manned by Union troops. If the film begins as a contest between man and machine, it ultimately depicts a triumphant collusion between the two. Keaton, one of the greatest natural athletes and stuntmen in film, loves his train as much as he does his inamorata, Annabelle Lee (played by the wonderfully oblivious Marion Mack *). He leaps and crawls over every inch of it, from the pilot, or cowcatcher, riding low on the tracks to the tender carrying the fuel.
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.
It’s worth remembering that The General, made 82 years ago, re-creates an incident that occurred only 64 years before it was shot. In 1862, a civilian Union spy, James Andrews, led a small attachment of soldiers 200 miles into enemy territory to steal an engine of the Western & Atlantic Railroad at Big Shanty, Ga. The General’s engineer, William Fuller (the basis for Keaton’s character), led the chase that ended with their capture. Some were hanged, while others escaped and became the first-ever recipients of the Medal of Honor. Among the latter was William Pittinger, who published a memoir, Daring and Suffering: A History of the Great Railroad Adventure, which can be freely downloaded as part of the Gutenberg Project.
When word got out that Keaton was making a comedy of Pittinger’s story, he was refused permission to use the General, which had survived and would later—partly because of Keaton’s film—be spruced up for a Georgia museum. The town of Marietta, where the story began, wanted nothing to do with him. So he re-created Georgia in the Northwest, shooting the picture entirely on location. Much of our visual sense of the Civil War derives from photographs by Mathew Brady and Alexander Gardner. For all its humor, The General conveys the illusion of those photographs come alive.
Keaton’s best films function as a loving record of American town life, with its shops and picket fences and leisure pursuits, set against a splendor of mountains, gulches, rivers, and fields. Using Cottage Grove, Ore., as his main location, Keaton preserved two eras: the Civil War, re-created with daunting attention to detail, and 1926, as passers-by in Cottage Grove would have seen it—the costumes were of the 19th century, but the buildings and natural surroundings were little changed. Other Civil War films, not least The Great Locomotive Race, Walt Disney’s dramatic 1956 telling of the same story (from the perspective of the Union raiders), invariably look like Hollywood pageants. Keaton’s authenticity and comedic understatement make The General a surprisingly modern experience. The storytelling and the gags are free of sentimentality and knockabout clichés. The four-minute battle scene is simply one of the most gripping, and occasionally hilarious, ever filmed.
Silent movies suffer as home video. They were meant to be seen in theaters, where the audience morphs into a comedy meter, responding en masse to each gag. I’ve seen it in theaters enough times to know that a few moments always elicit gales of laughter, some of them fleeting by so quickly that you will be grateful for instant replay, like Keaton’s running mount onto a wooden bicycle or the scene in which he straddles the pilot and averts disaster by using one log to get rid of another.
A classic minute in the history of movie romance (55:30 to 56:32) occurs when Annabelle tries to help him fuel the train, throwing wood into the furnace. She rejects one log because it has a hole in it and tosses in a small stick. Keaton, watching this, hands her a splinter. She conscientiously throws it in the fire, at which point exasperated playfulness gets the better of him, and he briefly strangles and then kisses her—all done so quickly that she remains entirely unfazed. A standard joke in Keaton’s comedies (and Charlie Chaplin’s, too) is that the world of silent movies is truly silent when a character’s back is turned. As Keaton chops wood, facing forward, he doesn’t hear the Union army passing behind his back.
Most Keaton films have astonishing scenes that transcend comedy. In The General, there is an overhead tracking shot of Keaton and his train entering a smoke-filled tunnel. The most unforgettable shot, said to be the costliest filmed during the silent era, is one in which Keaton sets fire to a bridge, causing the Union train to crash into a ravine—prefiguring by 30 years the climax of David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai.
Kino offers three soundtracks for The General, though the only one worth bothering with is the default musical score composed by Carl Davis in 1987. It keeps a straight face throughout, heightening without intruding on a magical film that is too brisk to bore and so absorbing that you may find yourself forgetting that it is silent.
Correction, Nov. 19, 2008: In this article, Marion Mack’s name was originally spelled incorrectly. (Return to the corrected sentence.)