Friday, September 30, 2011

The General (1926)

USA, 107 minutes
Directors: Clyde Bruckman, Buster Keaton
Writers: Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman, Al Boasberg, Charles Henry Smith, William Pittenger, Paul Girard Smith
Photography: Bert Haines, Devereaux Jennings
Editors: Buster Keaton, Sherman Kell
Cast: Buster Keaton, Marion Mack

With the exception of Charlie Chaplin I have long tended to struggle with comedies of a certain vintage, those pratfall-driven productions usually headed up by various familiar names: Laurel & Hardy, W.C. Fields, Harold Lloyd, the Keystone Kops, even the Marx Brothers all tend to be lost on me. And I'm quite sincere in my use of the word "lost"—I envy all those who get the kind of pleasure and solace out of them that I seem to find only with Chaplin. Even Woody Allen, at one point as important a filmmaker for me as anyone (hard to remember now sometimes!), has several times made his case for the Marx Brothers. But I have only barely glimpsed any of that for myself so far.

The Three Stooges, to briefly wander off on a tangent, is something of a different matter. They don't do much for me any more, but as a kid and for years into being an adult, I did find them very funny, particularly in the company of others—the sound effects, the silly ways they carried on, the fierce concentration on their various cruelties. I remember attending a ballgame once, it must have been in the '80s, where a Three Stooges clip was played between innings. I was struck, looking around, at how hard so many of the men were laughing, and at how cross so many of the women looked. There's something about the Three Stooges that really divides by gender.

Buster Keaton is often opposed to Charlie Chaplin in a kind of Beatles/Stones or Coke/Pepsi manner of systematic binary duality, and he is another one who seems lost on me for the most part, though my exposure to him even still remains fairly limited. But I will say that I have had an interesting experience with The General.

A couple of years ago I got my first look at it, alone in my living room, courtesy Netflix. Not a laugh disturbed my cats even once. Not a smile was even barely cracked. I appreciated some of the comments I had read ahead of time about the elaborate stunts making it as much an early action-style picture as a comedy, but I wasn't entirely convinced either, as nothing about it delivered the kind of edge-of-seat experience I expect from the action genre. I recognized that Keaton's stunts could be ingenious, often evidently intricate in the way he got them to work, such as various tricks he pulls with moving sizeable pieces of lumber about on or within the vicinity of trains in motion. So perhaps a few scattered moments of interest, of no longer than a few minutes apiece.

A few months later I had the opportunity to see it in a theater with a big crowd. It was a fundraising event and the expectation by the organizers was that it would likely be so poorly attended by informed cineastes they felt obliged to trot someone out ahead of time to make a few general educational remarks about silent films: "They couldn't record sound at that time or it was too expensive. The dialogue is shown between pictures on what are called intertitles. It won't be like movies you are used to now. You may have to allow yourself some patience." A handful of musicians had been pressed into service to provide music, and even before the lights went down it was apparent they were having a great time, dressed up in Civil War garb and carrying on with one another excitedly in an impromptu orchestra pit right in front of the stage the screen hung over.

Lights down. Film on. That house rocked with laughter from beginning to end, from the first sight of the picture Buster Keaton carries in his jacket of himself standing in front of his beloved General, a train engine, until the last bit of slapstick at the end with swords and vulnerable butts. They really loved it—and I enjoyed myself too. The laughter was infectious, and so was the surprise shared by so many there at the sophistication of those stunts. Even such relatively small matters as the unexpected stupidity in the clutch of Keaton's otherwise arrogant girlfriend (played by Marion Mack), and Keaton's evident attempts to moderate his reaction to it, sparkled in ways they just had not before.

For the first time I had some appreciation of Keaton's much ballyhooed "stone face," which is not so much inexpressive as it is self-consciously composed, the expressiveness leaking out in tiny gestures such as the way he blinks his eyes more rapidly to register reactions to train cars disappearing and reappearing, and entire armies suddenly swimming into his field of vision. Bits of business, such as with a cannon that gradually slips into a position where it is actually aimed directly at him and he is suddenly in great danger, are handled with a good deal of adroit, compressed energy. And some of the set pieces, such as the collapse of a burning bridge under the weight of a train attempting to cross it, may fairly be considered spectacular.

At the same time I could see and remember what had seemed so dull before I felt the pleasure of being with a crowd caught up in the moment and enjoying itself thoroughly, the air of discovery and the simple, classic ways that entertainers apply the tricks of comedy. I found myself laughing often even as I thought to myself, in a moderately scolding way, "This is not actually all that funny."

Watching it again yesterday, alone once again in my living room, I found the process inverted. Once again very little laughter, but more smiles this time, remembering how something had worked on the crowd before, and hence on me. I'm not sure what this says about the bedrock of my critical point of view, let alone about the unchanging standards of cinema classics. I know that a certain feeling of comfort accompanies The General for me now, and I suspect it will from here on out. That, in turn, makes me wish that I could attend packed-house charity events every month, every week even, with the films of the Marx Brothers and Laurel & Hardy and all the others. I want all those people there again to help me appreciate these pictures as much as I suddenly, and unexpectedly, find myself appreciating The General.


  1. Interesting post - I've always enjoyed The General (though at heart I'm probably more a Chaplin person), I feel like I've had this experience with other films though I'm not sure which at the moment. I do know Seven Samurai never gripped me like it was supposed to on a small screen but in a theater I felt like I "got" it for the first time.

    There is something about that communal experience, and I kind of miss it since I don't really go out to movies at all anymore. Then again, when I did/do, the audience usually isn't eating out of the palm of its hand, nor should they be.

    It's an interesting point though - I wonder how many movies people would be able to feel differently about if they saw it in the right "set".

  2. For better or worse I seem to be particularly vulnerable to this kind of influence. I think the movie where my perceptions have shifted about the most has been Last Tango in Paris, which I have loved, hated, and been indifferent to, usually in concert with whatever companions have watched with me.

    That said, I have always thought a big audience can turn a good picture into something really special, and I do miss that era of packed houses at can't-miss releases. Maybe it's still going on? I don't like the ticket prices nowadays, and the houses tend to be much smaller. And I know I'm joining a cliche parade here but I also think the nature of audiences has changed. This is not a youth thing. I saw The Help the other day (at a bargain matinee) in a theater with a lot of age 50+ folks like myself. Not much impulse control was evident in terms of making obvious comments right out loud, constantly, a steady stream of, "There was a lot of prejudice back then, yes wasn't there?" etc. And this was not an unusual experience, just my most recent. These people now seem to be impervious to glares and I have stopped shushing ever since I saw it turn into a fistfight. (I wasn't the shusher, but my sympathies were with him and I was the one to run out to the lobby for help stopping the fight. The movie was Spawn, probably the wrong movie to be shushing in anyway, but still.)