In 1998, amid an orgy of end-of-the-millenium top 100 lists, the American Film Institute released its list of the 100 best American films, a list that included three Charlie Chaplin movies but inexplicably no Buster Keaton films, despite the fact that several of his works, most notably The General (1926), rank among the silent era’s best and frequently hover near the top of many critics’ lists of the best films ever made.
But this has been Keaton’s lot in life, both during his career and since his death: to toil away in the shadow of the most famous comedian who ever lived. Though a late-career rediscovery of his work saw Keaton hailed as a cinematic genius, even Chaplin’s superior as a director, Keaton still retains his underdog status.
Pacific Film Archive will show The General and One Week (1921), Keaton’s first independent film, as the first installments in a new series: “Movie Matinees For All Ages.” The series debuts at 2 p.m. Saturday with Keaton and will be followed over the next couple of Saturdays with the Marx Brothers’ Horse Feathers (1932) and Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz (1939).
These films may be available on DVD, but there’s no substitute for the shared experience of comedy on the big screen. Especially The General, for the silent masterpiece will feature live accompaniment from pianist Judith Rosenberg.
The General is essentially one big chase sequence, brilliantly constructed and expanded to feature length. The story, based on a true incident from the Civil War, concerns a Southern train stolen by Northern soldiers, who spirit the engine back into Northern territory, burning bridges and destroying telegraph wires as they go. Buster, as Johnnie Grey, is the General’s engineer, and sets out to recapture his beloved locomotive. Along the way, Keaton stages a series of beautifully choreographed and increasingly dangerous stunts until he arrives in enemy territory, rescues his train—and, almost by accident, his girl—and then heads back to Southern territory while hounded by Northern soldiers. Thus the chase folds back on itself, like an arc that delivers Keaton back where he began—the “Keaton Curve,” as critic Walter Kerr put it—with gags and stunts from the first half now expanded upon in the second.
The General and Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1925) are unique among screen comedies in that they combine two seemingly incongruous genres: the comedy and the epic. Such a pairing had never been attempted before, as the grand scale of the epic seemed at odds with the smaller, more personal nature of character-based comedy. But whereas Chaplin’s film only contained a few outdoor shots in the early scenes before retreating to the comfort of studio sets, Keaton preferred to shoot on location; few of his comedies take place in studio sets. And though location shooting and period costumes were nothing new in Keaton’s work, The General dwarfs his previous efforts in scale and detail. Many critics consider it the most convincing celluloid recreation of the Civil War, the imagery recalling Matthew Brady’s photographs from the period.
Keaton instructed his crew to make it “so authentic it hurts” and carefully replicated the trains, uniforms, styles and terrain of the era. There were no special effects; Keaton’s desire for authenticity extended to every shot, culminating in the dramatic scene in which a train crashes through a burning bridge as scores of Northern soldiers pour over the hillside to converge on the Southern army’s front lines.
Critical reception was mixed. Some critics thought it a solid picture while others considered it Keaton’s weakest effort, taking offense at the notion of making light of the Civil War. Ultimately the considerable expense of the production caused Joseph Schenk, Keaton’s producer, to intervene with the usually autonomous director-star, requiring that his next feature be decidedly less extravagant. Keaton dutifully followed up with College (1927), one of his most restrained efforts, before embarking on the more elaborate Steamboat Bill, Jr (1928). It was while making Steamboat that Keaton learned that Schenk had sold his contract to MGM, bringing an end to Keaton’s independent career.
Under MGM, Keaton struggled to keep control over his work but quickly became subsumed by the studio system after his first feature, The Cameraman (1928). Thus Keaton, like Erich von Stroheim before him and Orson Welles after him, became something of a victim of his own success as the expense of and lack of contemporary public appreciation for his greatest achievement ultimately undermined his career.
PFA’s screening of The General will be preceded by One Week, the first two-reeler Keaton released as an independent artist after his apprenticeship with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. One Week was hailed as the year’s best comedy upon its release, establishing Keaton as one of cinema’s most innovative artists. The film is an excellent introduction to Keaton’s work as it features many of the characteristics that would become his hallmarks: a fascination with machinery, a semi-surrealist perspective, trains, and of course, the Keaton Curve, as the efforts of Buster and his bride to construct a pre-fabricated house eventually leave them homeless once again.
Photograph: Buster Keaton struggles to tame an errant cannon in his 1926 epic comedy The General.