A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Friday, April 8, 2016

The General (Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman, 1926)

The Civil War had been over for 60 years when The General was made, and from the tone of it you might think the South had won. That was, however, the usual attitude in Hollywood, and would remain so for perhaps another 40 years. The reason usually given for Hollywood's avoidance of treating the Southern states as what they really were -- i.e., racist traitors -- is a fear of losing the considerable market that the former states of the Confederacy constituted. So The General seems biased toward treating the Confederacy as a genteel homeland full of honorable, self-sacrificing heroes. There's no shying away from waving the Confederate battle flag as there would be today, and the strains of "Dixie" are used to stirring effect even in the score composed for the restored version seen on TCM -- as they would have been in any theatrical showing in the year of its release. If all this sounds like a curious quibble about one of the great silent comedies, now regarded as Buster Keaton's masterpiece (or at least one of them), so be it. But I was born a Southerner and raised to take such sentimentality about the region's past as a matter of course, in large part because Hollywood encouraged it. Now that I know better, I don't think it hurts to quibble about such things, especially when the political air is currently filled with legislated tolerance of discrimination, much (but not all) of it emanating from the states of the Old South. But let's lighten up: The General is a great film despite its wrongheaded view of history, and Keaton is one of the masters of the medium. Every time I watch it I see something new: This time, for example, I was taken with the sequence near the start of the film when Johnnie Gray (Keaton) arrives home with the first of his two loves (his engine, the General) and goes to see the other love, Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack). He is trailed to her house by two small boys, following in single file, and unknown to them Annabelle joins the little procession. Arriving at her door, he knocks, only to notice with a double-take that she's right behind him. They enter her living room, with the two boys following and seating themselves on the couch to observe. Johnnie sees them, pretends that he's leaving, goes to the door, ushers them out first, and then closes the door behind them. It's a simple gag routine of no importance to the plot (we never see the boys again), but it's executed with such straight-faced precision, as if it were being performed to a metronomic beat, that it becomes a small delight. Henri Bergson's theory of comedy is as unreadable as most theories of comedy are, but he makes a point that some things are funny because they show human beings behaving mechanically. Human beings are elastic and unpredictable, and when they turn inelastic and predictable, they can become funny. Almost everything in The General is done with this straight-faced precision, so that we laugh even when Keaton departs from it. Marion Mack proves herself a game performer here, subjected to all sorts of torments from being caught in a bear trap to being tied in a sack and flung into a boxcar to being drenched with water. Throughout it all she remains a ditz, and we often want to throttle her because of it. So when Keaton gives in to the exasperation we are all feeling with her, he does start to throttle her -- and then, endearingly, changes his mind and kisses her.