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The General

02 May

The General – directed by Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman. Farce. 107 minutes. Black and White Silent 1926.

★★★★★

The Story: A railroad engineer, turned down by his lady friend after failing to be taken into the rebel army, thwarts the Yankee takeover of a key railroad engine. 

~

I balk at writing about this picture because the word praise is insufficient to it.

If you enjoyed Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel you will see where it comes from and what is to be learned from The General at the same time as being entertained by it.

Full frontal exposure is how film farce must work, and Keaton knew this. He grasped the two-dimensionality of the motion picture screen and reveled in it. So when something comes from the right, it must flee from the left. The actors’ responses must  play into the camera and out to the audience as though the audience knew all along.

It’s the greatest chase film ever made. He employs masses of extras as armies and stages the most expensive special effect to that date: a train falls through a bridge. Except, it’s not a special effect. It’s actually done.

And Buster Keaton is clearly performing the daredevil, life-on-your-line stunts, one after another. He was the king of the pratfall; no one has ever approached him in this.

Farce is sudden, bold, mechanical. It works like a choochoo train, and the picture takes place in, on, and around a famous engine, The General. A great deal of farce depends upon our seeing what the main character does not see, and Keaton is a master of this gag. For while he sustains super human exploits and athletic feats of derring-do, he is also a sacred innocent. He is caught up in the folly of circumstances and responds to them humbly. It makes him one of our greatest screen actors. He has the Great Stone Face, but it is a stone curiously sensitive and readable. You always know what he is feeling, despite the rigor of his visage. For his eyes are large, beautiful, and subtle.

You see how Keaton makes me babble. I have no hallelujah large enough for him.

I suppose he is the greatest performer/entertainer ever to appear in film.

Will that do it? If not, shoot me.

No, no, not in the foot, you fool, you’re supped to misfire, over there, where that man with the fat ass stands. So he can fall on Buster. And Buster can skitter out from under, just as fatso is about to land on him.

My version had a second disc of extra features, all of which are fascinating, particularly a reel of Buster Keaton’s many dealings with railroad engines, streetcars, buses, and autos. A gem dangling from a diamond.

 
 
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