Friday, October 28, 2011

Vintage Movies: The General

There were two loves in his life: his engine and...
The silent era was a great time for physical comedy. Since the movies at that time were purely visual, with audio cues provided only by the soundtrack, there wasn't a lot of opportunity for witty banter. You couldn't crack a joke, but you could certainly fall off a horse.

Buster Keaton is still fondly remembered as one of the best of the old physical comedians—right up there with Charlie Chaplin. The General, the only thing I've seen him in, is wonderful. Buster Keaton plays Johnnie Gray, a train engineer during the Civil War. The Union Army hatches a villainous plan to steal “The General”, Johnnie's train. In the process, they also unexpectedly steal Annabell Lee, Johnnie's estranged sweetheart. The Union spies set off helter-skelter for their own lines and safety, but they reckoned without Johnnie.

This movie is a masterpiece of understatement. Buster Keaton executes every mishap and pratfall with a quiet, dogged, almost despairing look on his face; the great deadpan that made him famous. But it's not just him. Nobody in this movie appears to know that they are in a comedy. When a group of important Union generals having an important strategic meeting on the back of a stopping and starting train fall over for the third or fourth time, they look as serious and businesslike about it as if they really are important generals. The effect is, perversely, even funnier than if it was mugged up for the camera.

There are some brilliant special effects in this movie, including the business with the (real, live) cannon and the crash at the end, but these difficult and expensive set-pieces are treated with laconic indifference by the cameraman and editor. The whole movie is an extension of Johnnie's (or Keaton's) deadpan understatement. The result is, again, tactfully hilarious.

The General is a rara avis: physical comedy that still manages to come across as refined and tasteful. One of the really great movies.

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