Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Cinema Bestius: The General

Hey baby, let me take my steaming train and dip it in your river.

#18 – The General
This Pope has always though Buster Keaton has a lot in common with Jackie Chan. Because both men made amazing movies in which they perform amazing feats, everybody always wants to know, “How did he do it?” The answer is always the same… he did it. He actually did it. “How did he run up that wall?” He taught himself to run up a wall. That's how he did it: by doing it. You should see the take in Sherlock, Junior where Keaton is slammed to the railroad tracks by a torrent of water and breaks his collarbone (though he didn’t find out it had been broken until years later.) You should see the take in Police Story where Chan fails to run up the wall and breaks his leg. They didn't show those scenes in the movie (though in Jackie Chan’s case, it was in the end credits.) Yet every amazing scene they do show represents countless hours on the behalf of Chan or Keaton learning, practicing, and perfecting.

That’s the drive and genius on display in Keaton’s epic 1926 movie The General. When we see Buster Keaton doing things, he's really doing it. Keaton and his production crew really bought and restored two real Civil War-era (era) trains. Keaton really taught himself to drive a real train. How did they stage the train crash scene? They bought a third real train and REALLY F’N CRASHED A TRAIN.
SPOILER ALERT: When they drop the train in the river, that's a real bridge, too, and thousands of real people showed up to watch them film the scene. Keaton and company spent $42,000 on the most expensive single shot in silent film history—in 2016 dollars, that’s more than $592,000.

The Plot in Brief: Southern train engineer Johnnie Gray (Buster Keaton) wants very badly to join the Confederate cause in the Civil War. His girlfriend Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack) wants him to join up too. But recruiters want him to remain a train engineer; they think he's more valuable to the South in that capacity. One day a group of Northern spies steal Johnnie’s beloved engine, “The General,” and drive it north. Keaton takes off after it; he too steals a train and the chase begins. Keaton follows them to a Northern army encampment, where he accidently discovers that the Northern spies have kidnapped Annabelle to boot!
Johnnie not only regains his engine, he overhears the North’s plans for battle. Keaton rushes back to the South to warn the Confederate troops, with the Union army chasing him the entire way. It's a perfect comic plot: we go up, we turn around, and we come back down. Everything the Northern spies do to Buster on the way there, Buster does to them threefold on the journey back.

Keaton famously told his crew to make it “so authentic, it hurts.” For many people, The General is the Civil War brought to life on screen. The costumes look authentic, the sets look authentic, and as I mentioned earlier, they used a real Civil War locomotive and restored it to working order. The one thing you can always say about Buster Keaton is “The money’s on the screen!”

Feminists, take note! The 1920s was a very different time period. Marion Mack’s Annabelle Lee is the subject of some of the film’s humor, and not all of it is nice. At one point in the film, Johnnie is driving the engine and Annabelle is also in the engineer’s compartment. She's tidying up—she’s literally sweeping the floor because she’s a woman, see? He asks her to put some more wood in the firebox. She picks up the tiniest sliver of wood and tosses it into the firebox. Unimpressed with her efforts, Johnnie begins to strangle her. Then he stops, looks at her, and kisses her. I guess the kissing part makes the strangling part okay. As she goes about her business throughout the film, poor Annabelle is put through so much torture. She is forced to get into a bag big burlap bag that once contained men’s shoes. She is shoved down into the bag and roughly thrown onto the train. Then enormous boxes are thrown on top of her. Of course, it was a different time, and we can't hold the film to modern standards… but Marion Mack really “gets it” in The General.

The Pope believes we must resist passing final judgment on any film during its own time; we never have the necessary distance until some time has passed. When The General was released, it was a financial failure. No one went to see it, and some thought it was in "gruesomely bad taste." With the benefit of 90 years, the film has emerged as a unique masterpiece. Expertly made on a grand, sweeping scale, it’s the rare comedy that juxtaposes its humor with an absolutely authentic background and narrative (it’s actually based on a true story.) We are further away from the Civil War, so we can be more objective about that. I also know that audience tastes in comedy have changed; in 2016, we are more than willing to laugh at someone dying, as long as it’s a recognizable joke that leads to the demise. My College Composition class proved this a few weeks ago when they were more than willing to laugh at one of The General’s blackest jokes. I don't know what that says about us—are we more broad-minded today, or are we more horrible?
The General’s Three Miracles: Large scale jokes writ large; an attention to detail that would serve even a period drama well, and is rare for a comedy; and Keaton’s gamble that he could stay true to history and just add jokes. This is one of the very few comedies that is breathtaking in its ambition and execution.

MUSICAL NOTE: The current Kino Blu-ray disc gives the viewer three choices of musical accompaniment. Go with the Carl Davis score; you will not be sorry.

“In nomine Keaton, et Grant, y spiritu Lee… Amen.”

I would like to thank the students in my seventh period College Composition class for their assistance in writing this column: Mohammed Ahmed, Holly Arguelles, Michael Baac, Matt Baclawski, Malina Behrendt, Anna Connelly, Lindsey Hendren, Will Jasutis, Liza Paskevych, Jermaine Patterson, Emily Perez, Brad Pohlman, Brianna Puentes, Joe Ramage, Marisol Reyes-Ochoa, Kurt Serafin-Olszowy, Jacob Strickland, Melanie Wadlington, and Thomas Yon. You are all the bestius.


  1. I was actually spend a lot of time thinking about humorous deaths in movies, which probably makes me sound like a psycho. Keaton is actually a master of the blackly comedic death- I recall watching one when I was a 4th grader. In this one he was in old alaska. He goes into his house and sees his wife in the arms of another man. He shoots them both. He then *SPOILERS* says "Oops. This isn't my wife or my house." and leaves. I wonder if he was one of the first to do this, cinematically.

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  3. *Sees article on Buster Keaton*
    *Puts on monocle*
    *Reads opening dick joke*
    *Puts monocle back in draw, dejectedly.*

    In all seriousness though, is Keaton that high-brow? I know some people consider him so but he's mostly just a goofy slapstick guy.

    1. I would say he has aspects of both. His slapstick is certainly goofy (which does not mean unintelligent), but his use of filmmaking to tell the joke is quite sophisticated. I think that some of the humor that could be interpreted as misogynistic is actually a very intelligent subversion of southern culture. What Keaton is actually doing by having the hero throw a chunk of wood at the damsel and shoving her rudely into a potato bag, is that he is a) expressing the audience's frustration at the annoying manner in which the heroine has acted at the beginning of the film, as well as b) audaciously trampling all over the idea of southern manners (a favorite lampooning topic of his), something which the hollywood of the first half of the twentieth century loved to depict and idealize. Not saying that nobody has the right to be offended, I'm just saying there's more going on than just jokes at the expense of a woman.

    2. *Puts a monocle the size of a plate on....

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