Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Best Picture Of The Silent Era: The General

If you're only going to see one movie from what I'm calling the pre- Oscars Silent Era, then Buster Keaton's masterpiece The General is the one to see.

Not only is it one of the greatest comedies ever made, The General, which Keaton wrote, directed and starred in, is also an action film that puts most of its modern counterparts to shame.

Based on an incident from the American Civil War, the story—about a lovelorn engineer who finds himself battling spies who hijack his train—features a spectacular chase involving two, then three speeding locomotives, daredevil stunts, explosions, burning bridges, comic mishaps, sight gags, split-second timing, all while Keaton woos the girl.

This being the real thing (Keaton did all his own stunts and used full-sized trains, one of which wound up sitting in the bottom of a river for fifteen years), it's a wonder nobody got killed filming it.

Like in the best silent films, the lack of dialogue is almost irrelevant. The outline of the plot is easy enough to follow: war breaks out and to impress the woman he loves, Keaton tries to volunteer. But as an engineer for the Western & Atlantic Railroad, he is more valuable where he is than in uniform, so the army's recruiters reject him.

Of course, the army doesn't bother to explain the situation to Keaton or to anyone else. The girl assumes he is a coward and the rest of this brief, 75-minute movie involves Keaton proving otherwise.

In case you're afraid you don't have the patience to sit through a silent movie, I can reassure you the set-up takes only 14 minutes before the spies to show up, hijack Keaton's train—which, by the way, was based on a real-life Civil War era steam locomotive named "The General"—and kidnap the woman he loves. Even then, Keaton has already treated you to one of the most famous sight gags in movie history.

From there, the story unreels at breakneck speed.

In addition to the two separate train chases that bookend the movie, there's time for a daring escape, a battle between the two advancing armies, and an endless series of gags. Keaton's famously understated reaction to the chaos around him—he was known as "The Great Stoneface"—only adds to the modern feel of the production.

In 1999, the American Film Institute ranked Buster Keaton number 21 on its list of the greatest movie performers of all-time; Entertainment Weekly listed him as the seventh best director; and Roger Ebert has written "Today I look at Keaton's works more often than any other silent films."

Watching The General again, it's easy to see why. I'm giving it the Katie-Bar-The-Door Award for Best Picture of the Silent Era.


mister muleboy said...

This essay's fine and all, but don't you have any observations on the auto-maker buyout?

I kid.

Now who exactly would be interested in an oft-married, alcoholic crazyman who saw his life derail and nearly end before he'd fully realized his glorious self?

Since his work is, IMHO, the most timeless of the silent era, you'll get no argument from me. "timeless" meaning modern, classic, familiar, groundbreaking -- all at the same time. Not of its time, you know? He's also a fascinating character outside his movies, informing his body o' work. And he made me laugh in the work [and I think it was strictly paycheck work] he did at the end of his life. To go from The General to shilling products in print and broadcast ads is . . . . timeless?

I like this post of yours.

Mister Parker said...

Comments about the automaker bailout I reserve strictly for your blog and grumbling into my coffee while reading the newspaper.

I will say that GM was pretty much doomed when they announced losses of more than $9 billion in the fourth quarter of 2008 despite something like a $6 billion infusion of cash from the federal government. Trying to prop them up is like trying to shovel the ocean with a pitchfork.

As for Buster Keaton, I think I'll pretty much hack everybody off tomorrow when I award the Best Actor of the Silent Era prize to Charlie Chaplin. There's no doubt in my mind that Keaton's silent work looks more modern; yet I am equally convinced that Chaplin's work fits the medium better.

As I will explain tomorrow.

I could be wrong.

You say to-may-to and I say to-mah-to ...

Anonymous said...

I strongly agree with everything you say about The General, one of my favorite films of all times, of any era, and you will severely hack me off tomorrow when you rob him of the Katie award he so richly deserves over that overrated Commie.

Marty DiBergi said...


"overrated Commie"?

how 'bout socialist pinko fuck?

and wasn't he a kid-toucher too?

I did like his work in You Nazty Spy, though . . . .

Mister Parker said...

I know Jestaplero is just kidding about the "Commie" crack, practically being a Commie himself ...

"Overrated," on the other hand, is heart-felt I'm sure.

Gahd, I love the movies!

Marty DiBergi said...

I thought that he was a crypto-fascist tool of the state?

Chaplin, not Jestaplero.

Him, he's just a big, lovable lug. . . Gahd bless him

Mister S. said...

Thanks for this post. The General was the first silent film I saw, and it's my favorite of that era. For a while, I thought I liked it best *because* I saw it first, but I've come to believe it's just that good.

Come to think of it, my kids sort of have the same issue about baseball, having seen their first major league game from the box seats at Fenway Park, where they saw David Ortiz hit a walk-off home run in the 10th inning. After that, it's not surprising that they aren't that thrilled about sitting in the upper deck at Nats Park. (But then again, who is?)

Mister Parker said...

Mr. S, welcome.

I gotta tell you, as one who knows, box seats at Fenway are to the upper deck in Nationals Park what The General is to your aunt Tilly's home movies.

I'm just praying we don't lose 102 this year ...

Lupner said...

Saw this way too long ago when in college. Was very lucky to have been able to see it on the big screen, as JMU offered a free Sunday movie nite in its movie theatre that typically featured such classics. It's likely that somebody from the music school accompanied with piano, but was pretty transfixed by Buster so cannot be 100% sure about that.

Go Nats!