Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The General (1926)

An internationally acclaimed auteur follows the biggest hit of his career with a budget-busting action-comedy epic. The production values are prodigious – a single sight gag requires one of the most expensive single shots in movie history – and the death-defying stunt work is spectacular.

But the critical response is scathing. Variety bluntly blasts the production as “a flop.” Life magazine condemns the cringe-inducing mix of comedy and carnage. The New York Times huffily complains that the director “appears to have bitten off more than he can chew.” Negative buzz abounds, unfavorable word of mouth spreads. Despite the marquee allure of the above-the-title star, audiences stay away in droves.

Sound familiar? It could be the story of 1941, or Last Action Hero. But the embarrassing under-achievements of those box-office duds are fairly inconsequential when viewed in the big picture of Hollywood history. Buster Keaton’s The General, arguably the first action-comedy epic, merits special consideration as a far more significant “failure.”

Today, Keaton’s dauntingly ambitious and remarkably accomplished 1927 comedy is universally recognized as one of the enduring classics of the silent era. Indeed, many critics and academics insist The General is one of the greatest movies ever made in any period. Back in the 1920s, however, it was such a resounding flop that Keaton’s career was forever blighted by its long shadow.

To be sure, Keaton remained active -- most often as an actor, sometimes as a director or uncredited writer -- in features and shorts until his death in 1966. He appeared as a befuddled time-traveler in a memorable Twilight Zone segment, displayed remarkable dignity (and undiminished comic verve) in such teen-skewing trifles as Pajama Party (1964) and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965), and gave a poignantly funny final performance in Richard Lester’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966). But he never again enjoyed the artistic freedom and financial wherewithal he was granted when he made The General.

Even in his heyday, Keaton often found himself on the wrong end of unflattering comparisons to a more celebrated contemporary, Charlie Chaplin. Viewed in retrospect, however, the dissimilarities between the two comic greats are more pronounced. As critic Andrew Sarris astutely noted in The American Cinema, “The difference between Keaton and Chaplin is the difference between poise and poetry, between the aristocrat and the tramp, between adaptability and dislocation, between the function of things and the meaning of things...”

To put it another way: While Chaplin often risks everything, even his life, while soaring on flights of dream-stoked fancy, Keaton customarily remains more earthbound, doggedly ignoring the chaos around him while obsessively focused on purely practical matters. Chaplin romanticizes women as luminous mysteries to be worshipped; Keaton expects a woman to pull her weight even after he falls in love with her. (At one point in The General, his character is so exasperated by the clueless klutziness of his lady love that he very nearly strangles her before opting to kiss her instead.) Whereas Chaplin might be driven batty by his dehumanizing drudgery on a high-speed assembly line (Modern Times), Keaton is more determined to impose control over troublesome technology, likely through sheer force of will.

Consider one of the many unforgettable moments in The General, the Civil War saga of a Confederate engineer’s misadventures while trying to retrieve a wood-burning locomotive hijacked by Union spies. (The title refers to the locomotive, not a military officer.) As Johnnie Gray, the improbably and imperturbably heroic Southerner, Keaton is so busy chopping wood to keep his engine running while pursuing his stolen General, he remains totally oblivious as his train passes retreating Confederate forces, then an advancing Union army. His absurdly disproportionate attentiveness to detail is not unlike that of the bomber crewman in Dr. Strangelove who fastidiously corrects a log error while en route to the dawning of doomsday.

Throughout The General, Keaton lives up to his nickname as The Great Stone Face, making only the most minute adjustments to his expression to signal shifts between amusement (rare) and befuddlement (frequent), despair (he volunteers for the Confederate army, but is rejected because of his value as an engineer) and exultation (he proves his heroism to the Southern belle who once thought him a coward). Just as important, Keaton also illustrates the contradiction – the hilarious dichotomy between stillness of form and fluidity of movement – that is his hallmark as a comic artist.

After the enormous success of his Battling Butler (1926), a relatively slight farce about a faux boxer, Keaton co-wrote and co-directed The General (with Clyde Bruckman) as another star vehicle. Even so, the latter movie’s notoriously expensive sight gag (estimated cost: $42,000) is keyed to the flabbergasted response of a minor supporting character, a Union commander who watches helplessly while a train falls through a burning bridge and into a river far below. Keaton used a real bridge, a real river – and, yes, a real locomotive. Back in 1927, such excessive spectacle in a comedy struck many critics and audiences as bewildering, if not downright unseemly.

Viewers of the era were even more upset by the outrageously dark comedy of a scene in which Keaton fails to notice while his Confederate comrades are felled by a Union sniper. Just in the nick of time, our hero saves himself simply by waving his sword. The loosened blade flies off the handle, and plunges into the enemy marksman.

Mind you, we don’t see the moment of impalement, just a brief glimpse of the dead sniper. But that was too much for most folks in the 1920s. Critic Robert E. Sherwood complained in Life magazine: “Someone should have told Buster that it is difficult to derive laughter from the sight of men being killed in battle. Many of his gags at the end of (The General) are in such gruesomely bad taste that the sympathetic spectator is inclined to look the other way.” Time passes, tastes change: In 2000, when the American Film Institute released its list of the 100 funniest movies ever made, The General ranked higher – No. 18 – than any other silent comedy on the list.

Buster Keaton was far ahead of time, which is why he remains immortal.

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