The General, 1926.
Directed by Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton.
Starring Buster Keaton, Marion Mack, Glen Cavender and Jim Farley.
Johnny Gray (Buster Keaton) wants to fight in the Civil War, but they won’t let him enlist. So he, and his train, takes on the Union themselves.
He was playing for all that time? You forget that somebody was even playing the piano after a while, being conditioned to pre-recorded music in cinemas. But he was, this Costas Fotopoulos. A full 78 minutes. So good, he was, you forget he was there at all. Until the end, where he hits a few reverberating chords over the screen’s black and white ‘The End’ card. So we all applaud and whoop and whistle. Jeez, 78 minutes. He must be exhausted.
It was at the Prince Charles Cinema in Leicester Square, a screening of Buster Keaton’s The General with live piano accompaniment. There were two loves in Johnny Gray’s (Keaton) life: his engine, The General, and his girl, Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack). It’s the Civil War, and everyone is enlisting. Annabelle looks at him with puppy dog eyes after her own brother signs up. Gray stares back slightly bemused. “Really?” his expressionless face seems to say.
And that’s the strength of Keaton – his blank looks. It’s the perfect screen upon which to project your own feelings. Even when all is falling about him, when bridges collapse and trains collide, he stands there looking only slightly confused. “Really?” those faintly strained eyebrows suggest. “Really?”
So he enlists, but they don’t want him. More use to the war effort as an engineer, you see. But there’s no glory with the wrench, and Annabelle swiftly disowns him. Mournful, he rides out of town in his train.
One year later.
Annabelle, unbeknownst to Gray, is on his train. And so are a gang of disguised Union soldiers. They capture The General, and Annabelle along with it. Both of Gray’s loves have been stolen from him.
The rest of The General details Gray’s various attempts to get both of these back. The slapstick humour isn’t as heavy as you’d expect. A person falling over for no reason happens scarcely. The laughs come from the visual humour, where people and objects are transformed into props for Keaton’s physical comedy. They say comedy is all about timing. You’d be hard pressed to find a better example than when Gray manages to aim a cannon at his own train (take a look here).
The length is intimidating. 78 minutes is a long time with only image and piano. I guessed silent comedy worked best in the 20-minute single or double reels, and assumed boredom would eventually seep in. It doesn’t. And that’s thanks to Keaton’s timeless persona. His physical observations may last forever, his blank face available for every passing generation to make their own. He brings objects to life to dance and do battle with, like some live-action Fantasia. And then, when the black and white ‘The End’ flickers up onscreen, accompanied by a few of the live pianist’s reverberating chords, you’ll think – 78 minutes? But it passed like some hilarious dream.
365 Days, 100 Films
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