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, both in life 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—and though the AFI corrected its error in its 2008 list, ranking The General at no. 18—Keaton still retains his underdog status.
Keaton's work is available on DVD, but there’s no substitute for the shared experience of comedy on the big screen. The chance doesn't come around all that often, but it will this weekend, when the Oakland East Bay Symphony presents The General at the Paramount Theater, with live accompaniment on the Mighty Wurlitzer by Christoph Bull. The program will also feature the OEBS's performance of Camille Saint-Saëns's Symphony No. 3 ("Organ Symphony"), again with Bull at the keyboard.
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 along the way. 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.
Though Keaton resisted the "genius" label and adamantly rejected intellectual interpretations of his work ("You can't be a genius in slapshoes and a flat hat," he once said), there is something inherently poetic about his work. Chaplin nakedly strove for poetry in his films, while Harold Lloyd, the third of the triumvirate of great silent clowns, simply did not have the necessary qualities. But Keaton, though he never consciously attempted to achieve Art, had an intrinsically artistic quality in his comedy and worldview.
Watch the moment when Keaton, rejected by his girl, sits disconsolately on the train, too lost in sorrow to notice that it has begun to move, lifting him in gentle, lilting arcs. Or the hilarious but terrifying image—almost archetypal in its impact—of Keaton, while scrambling across the top of the train's cars to escape an enormous canon that is pointed directly at him, desperately and ineffectually throws a stick at it.
The General, like much of Keaton's best work, pits the little man against overwhelming odds. Misunderstood and rejected by his girl and her family, he eventually finds himself in a position to redeem himself. He does not seek the opportunity; fate thrusts it upon him. But when it does, he is ready. Sort of. The Keaton character is never suave and is prone to all kinds of mishaps, but he is always resourceful. A frequent theme in Keaton's films is man vs. machine, and The General presents it on a grand scale as Buster struggles with trains, canons and battalions of regimented soldiers. But Keaton always manages to make his peace with the mechanized world and to sort of find an equilibrium with it. Like an aikido artist, Keaton eventually uses the strength of the forces arrayed against him, merges with them and eventually rides their momentum to a triumphant finish. Keaton doesn't so much fight his enemies, but instead finds a way to use the laws of a hostile universe as means to his own ends.
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 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.
In his last years, his work was rediscovered and rereleased, leading to a new appreciation of Keaton as not only one of the great comedians, but one of the great directors. In fact, Roger Ebert calls Keaton possibly the greatest actor-director of all time. As with the character he portrayed, it's as though the universe finally came around to see things his way.
Oakland East Bay Symphony presents "The Mighty Wurlitzer: Music at the Movies," featuring Buster Keaton in The General. 8 p.m. Friday, March 19 and 2 p.m. Sunday, March 21 at the Paramount Theater, 2025 Broadway, Oakland. Tickets start at $20. www.oebs.org. 444-0801. Ticketmaster: (800) 745-3000.