Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The General (Buster Keaton Productions/United Artists, 1926)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I dashed out of the hall to catch the #7 bus to Balboa Park to meet Charles at the Organ Pavilion for the showing of the film The General (Buster Keaton’s 1926 masterpiece, co-directed by him and Clyde Bruckman but with Keaton undoubtedly the auteur as well as the star) with live organ-music accompaniment by Dennis James. Charles had told me he would sit near the front, but as things turned out he’d had to camp out in the third section back — and he’d got a lot of incredulous looks when he told people he was saving the seat next to him for someone else. Fortunately we were able to find each other — he was standing up in the crowd and I spotted him (smart man, especially considering our generally dismal track record for finding each other in public places) — and I joined him about 10 minutes before the event began. Dennis James turned out to be a screaming queen — once he opened his mouth to introduce his pre-movie concert program there was no doubt about his sexual orientation! He played a neat little program, including an undistinguished Sousa-esque march (Charles croaked out, “It’s … ,” when he finished the piece and I got the joke instantly — Monty Python’s Flying Circus), an arrangement of “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” a piece called “Hurry #2” by one W. T. Simon which he also used throughout his accompaniment for the film (apparently it was a short piece from one of the books of music sold during the silent-film era with pieces suitable for various screen situations, and he picked this one because it was indicated as useful for accompanying chase sequences involving trains) and F. W. Measham’s march “American Patrol” (which was in effect his second Glenn Miller cover of the evening, since Miller recorded an arrangement of “American Patrol” even before he went into the service himself).

By now The General is pretty much beyond criticism, but seeing it in this context — not only with a live musical accompaniment but also with a large audience (comedy always works better with an audience to laugh with you — which is why virtually all TV sitcoms feature recorded laughter, either added later from a laugh track or supplied during filming by a live studio audience). The print they had was a 16 mm. re-release by a company called Essex (and, like the current video of Young at Heart, it was edited to eliminate any references to the original producer, Joseph M. Schenck, or releasing company, United Artists) with some nitrate blotches (notably on the famous sequence in which the Union train collapses into the river after it attempts to cross the Rock River bridge after Keaton has fired it) and no color tints (the tints are included on my video and do add to the movie, even though The General was certainly not as radically tinted as, say, the 1916 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or the 1925 The Lost World). It was also surprising from the opening credits that Keaton’s usual cinematographer, Elgin Lessley, wasn’t with him on this one (did he decide to take a pass on the rough location conditions in Oregon?), though his usual art director, Fred Gabourie, was (and certainly the photography by J. Devereaux Jennings and Bert Haines, using a rich, deep-focus look obviously copied from Matthew Brady’s famous photos of the Civil War itself, was nothing to complain about) — and there’s no doubt but that this is one of Keaton’s two masterpieces (Sherlock, Jr. is the other one), a mixture of comedy and violence that was at least 40 years ahead of its time. (When I first saw it in the 1970’s I remember being particularly struck by the horrifying payoff to Keaton’s running gag of having his sword blade detach itself from its handle — the blade goes flying through the air and kills a Union sniper that has been wiping out a Confederate gun crew — and I thought at the time, “So Bonnie and Clyde was supposed to be so innovative in its combination of comedy and violence — and here was Buster Keaton doing it 40 years before!”) With his hair grown out to be historically authentic, Keaton was never more beautiful physically — and the incredible attention he paid to detail in making this movie (down to choosing his location in Oregon because it was the only place he could find a railroad that still ran on the narrow-gauge track used during the Civil War) and his artful use of a true story as a framework for his film only add to the entertainment value (something Chaplin, who threw out almost all the location footage he shot for The Gold Rush, never really learned). And one thing I hadn’t realized until I finally got to see The Navigator, Keaton’s film from two years earlier, was that the great gag in The General in which he attempts to fire a cannon at the Union train and the cannon works itself out of adjustment and points itself directly at him was copied almost exactly from the earlier film — with only one key difference (which made the gag a lot funnier!): instead of a toy cannon, this time it was a full-sized one! — 8/4/98


The film shown last night at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion’s annual silent-film showing was an acknowledged comedy masterpiece, Buster Keaton’s The General (1926), based on a real incident of the Civil War in which a Union raider named James J. Andrews led a unit across Southern lines to hijack a locomotive, The General, and use it to sabotage the tracks and blow up bridges so the South couldn’t resupply their army that was facing the Union forces at Chattanooga, Tennessee. The Southerners hijacked a locomotive of their own, The Texas, and gave chase, ultimately tracking down and capturing the Union raiders, eight of whom (including Andrews) were hanged, while the others were taken prisoner and ultimately freed in a prisoner exchange. The film casts Keaton — with his hair grown out and probably the handsomest he ever appeared in a movie — as “Johnnie Gray” (the everyman-of-the-South symbolism of the name is obvious), engineer on the Western and Atlantic Rail Road, who (as a title explains to us) has two loves. One is his locomotive, The General, and the other is … at that point we see Johnnie posting a photo of a woman on the dashboard of his engine. The woman is “Annabelle Lee” (an equally obvious everywoman-of-the-South name), played by Marion Mack — whom I’ve previously been unimpressed by but this time around struck me as one of Keaton’s most effective leading ladies, at least partly because he (Keaton not only starred in the film, he produced it and co-directed with Clyde Bruckman) got a performance out of her that’s so understated I got the impression he wanted her to be a female “great stone face” version of himself.

That’s a good thing because, even though the writers’ (Keaton, Bruckman, Al Boasberg — later the creator of the stateroom scene in the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera — and Charles Henry Smith) conception of her character veered from spunky (at one point she ties wire between two trees lining the track, creating a trap for the oncoming Union locomotive that’s chasing them) to stupid (when she throws a stick into the train’s fire, thinking that will actually help, and Johnnie ridicules her by putting in an even smaller piece of wood) — under Keaton’s direction she was at least spared the cooing winsomeness that afflicted all too many silent-comedy heroines. We first see Keaton paying court to Annabelle Lee on the porch of her home — he elaborately knocks on her door without realizing that she’s actually on the porch, right behind him, and it’s an indication of Keaton’s restraint that when he finally realizes this and does his double-take, he doesn’t bat his eyes and grin at the camera the way Chaplin would have. Instead he keeps his “great stone face” on and registers his joy with just a few eye blinks and the little swallowing gesture he did with his mouth that made him look like a horse that had just been given a lump of sugar. He’s in the living room of the Lee home when her brother (Frank Barnes) announces that Fort Sumter has just been fired on, and her father (Charles Henry Smith) says, “Then the war is on.” The brother announces his immediate intention to enlist in the Confederate army, and Johnnie is determined to enlist, too — only the man in charge of the recruitment office decides he’ll be more valuable to the Southern cause as an engineer than as a soldier in the ranks. Unfortunately, no one bothers to tell Johnnie this, though later he tries to enlist again, this time giving his name as “William Brown” and his occupation as “bartender.” He’s caught, and caught again when he tries to steal the recruitment papers from someone who was enlisted, so he’s immediately damned by the Lee family as a traitor to the South and Annabelle says she won’t speak to him again until he’s in uniform.

Then the film flashes forward a year and shows us the Union soldiers plotting the raid, and afterwards they seize The General while it’s on a normal passenger run and its passengers and crew have stopped for dinner — only Annabelle had returned to the baggage car to fetch something, so the Union raiders end up taking her hostage. Johnnie notices while he’s washing his hands at the train stop that his locomotive is moving away without him, so he gives chase — first on foot, then in a hand car (which Keaton has trouble pushing to get it to work) and finally in another locomotive, The Texas. Johnnie is supposed to be pulling a train with Southern soldiers, but he accidentally uncouples the car containing them so he’s going off to chase the Northerners alone. Along the way most of the gags stem from the Northerners’ attempt to throw debris on the track to derail him, and his quite daring (in real life: there were quite a few gags for which Keaton was genuinely risking life and limb — even the seemingly innocuous scene when he sits on the cross-tie that drives his locomotive and it goes up and down with him on it could have killed him if the engine had moved unexpectedly) tactics to clear the tracks so he can pursue. The most famous gag was when he steals a cannon from a siding, aims it at the Union train — only Keaton’s foot gets caught on the holder attaching the cannon car and he ends up with a fully loaded cannon pointed right at him, about to go off. Keaton had done this gag just two years before with a miniature cannon in his 1924 film The Navigator, but it’s both grimmer and funnier with a full-sized one! Johnnie ends up at the Union headquarters at Chattanooga, where he reunites with Annabelle and frees her from Union captivity. He also hides under a table where the Union generals (one of whom is played by Keaton’s father Joe) are plotting to rendezvous their army with a supply train for a surprise attack on the Confederates at Marietta, Georgia, and in the second half of the film Johnnie re-steals The General and uses it to race back to the Southern lines and let them know of the Union plans. Key to the Northern strategy is getting their supply train over the Red Rock Bridge, and in the film’s most spectacular scene Johnnie and Annabelle set fire to the bridge just in time for The Texas, being driven by the Union men who are chasing them, to collapse as the bridge weakens under their weight. Though Keaton had his great special-effects man, Fred Gabourie, on this film (he’s listed as “technical director” since the term “special effects” hadn’t been coined yet), and Gabourie was such a master of model work that shots he created for the 1924 silent film The Sea Hawk were reused as stock in Errol Flynn’s star-making vehicle Captain Blood and the Flynn quasi-remake of The Sea Hawk itself, Keaton decreed that there would be no model work and no effects shots.

He took himself and his company to Oregon because there was the only place he could find a working railroad that still used the narrow-gauge track used during the Civil War, and he went way over budget on the film — imdb.com lists a total cost of $750,000 but Donald Moews’ Keaton biography said he spent over a million on it, the most expensive comedy film made to that time (his producer, Joseph M. Schenck, had budgeted it for $400,000) — thanks largely to his almost Stroheim-esque mania for realism. Keaton was shooting at a time when there were still a few people left who had living memories of the Civil War, and between that and Keaton’s overall love of trains (he knew how to drive a locomotive and it was one of his most frequent pastimes; he also had a large collection of model trains and used one for one of the funniest gags in his short The Electric House) this was obviously a personal project for him and one on which he kicked out the jams. Keaton clearly spent a lot of money not only on the trains but also on all the authentic props, including cannons and rifles as well as uniforms, and hiring the Oregon National Guard to play the soldiers (on both sides; he’d have them dressed in Confederate grey and charge, then change into Union blue and charge over the same ground, then cut the two together to look like two armies were chasing each other). The locomotive that crashes through the burning Red Rock Bridge (the fire was real and Keaton and his cast and crew had to break off shooting briefly to put it out) was real and remained at the bottom of the Oregon river for nearly two decades until it was salvaged for scrap metal during World War II. For his pains The General became the first Keaton film that flopped at the box office — though at least part of that was due to Joseph Schenck’s having just assumed the presidency of United Artists, which meant that instead of being released through MGM as Keaton’s previous features had been, this came out as a United Artists release and therefore it was available to fewer theatres than Keaton’s MGM releases. Also, the film’s rapid-fire alternation between comedy and violence probably threw 1926 audiences as well as critics; the New York Herald-Tribune reviewer wrote, “Some of the gags are in gruesomely bad taste,” and it’s not hard to figure out which ones they mean. When I first saw The General in the early 1970’s I remember thinking that the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde had been hailed as a ground-breaking masterpiece for its rapid alternations between comedy and violence — and here Keaton had been doing it four decades earlier! The scene I was particularly thinking of ­— and I suspect one of the ones that aroused the Herald-Tribune critic’s ire — was one in which the running gag of Keaton’s sword blade coming off when he tries to draw it has its payoff when the blade flies through the air and impales and kills a Union sniper who’s been picking off the Confederate artillerymen.

The General is one of Keaton’s two best films (his audacious dream fantasy Sherlock, Jr. from 1924 is the other) and an indication, along with Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush from a year earlier and the Harry Langdon-Frank Capra film The Strong Man, also a 1926 production, of what heights silent comedy had reached at the tail end of the silent era. Yes, the pro-Southern orientation of the story is politically problematic — in the 1950’s Keaton told an interviewer that he had to play a Southerner because the obligatory happy ending required that he end the film on the winning side, and though the North won the overall war the South had won the particular battle he was filming — I noticed Charles quietly applauding whenever the Union forces on screen scored a victory even though we were “supposed” to be rooting for the boys in grey. Keaton returned to the Civil War as a subject when he did gags for the 1948 Red Skelton film A Southern Yankee (for which he worked out a great scene in which Skelton wears a uniform that’s blue on one side, grey on the other, and when the blue side faces the Union troops and the grey side faces the Confederates both sides salute him — only he turns around, and this time the blue side faces the Confederates, the grey side faces the Unionists, and both sides shoot at him), and the original story was filmed by Walt Disney in 1962 as The Great Locomotive Chase (with real-life Southerner Fess Parker playing Keaton’s role) — but The General is the film people remember even though it’s not the start-to-finish laugh-fest many of Keaton’s films (especially his shorts) were. Instead it’s a character-driven war movie whose laughs come from situations and comic action scenes that arise naturally from the story — Keaton having realized early on in his feature-film career that he had to pay a lot more attention to story development and consistency, and avoid the cartoon-like gags he’d done in his shorts — while the physical “look” of the film (J. Devereaux Jennings and Bert Haines were his cinematographers) is absolutely consistent with the photographic record we have of the Civil War; at times it looks as if the pictures of Matthew Brady and Alexander Gardner have come to life before our eyes. It’s no surprise that Keaton and Raymond Rohauer chose The General as the film with which they would re-introduce him to the public in the late 1950’s; it was a ground-breaking film that, like the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, The Wizard of Oz, Citizen Kane, Vertigo and many other films that flopped at their original release and later became acknowledged classics, needed time to catch up to it. — 8/23/16