A Hollywood talent scout’s glib take on the two comedy masters of the silent era might have read like this: Charlie Chaplin, great walk. Buster Keaton, great face.
While Chaplin’s brilliance was of the humanist sort, down to that little amble showing just enough spirit in the woeful gait, Keaton’s existentialist’s soul could be seen all over his face. The tight, expressionless mouth and those Sphinx eyes that gave away almost nothing seemed emblematic of the sort of humor dredged from the hardest of lives.
As with Chaplin’s tramp, you can’t help cheering for Keaton’s put-upon Everyman. They may have played this similar character in different ways, but Chaplin and Keaton shared genius in bringing us so close to them.
In “The General,” Keaton plays Johnnie Gray, a Confederate soldier with two loves: his locomotive engine (named “The General”) and his reluctant sweetheart, Annabelle (Marion Mack).
Based on a true Civil War story, the 1926 film puts Gray in the middle of a Union plot to swipe a Rebel train and take it up north, destroying the railroad and communication lines behind them. The story provided Keaton with the opportunity to display his energetic, and often improvisational, comic style.
“The General” employs a jitterbug pace. There’s nothing mechanical about Keaton’s direction; one potentially disastrous event leads fluidly to the next as Johnnie first pursues the stolen train then, upon rescuing it and the kidnaped Annabelle, is chased by the bumbling Yankees. Characteristically, Keaton performs acrobatic and hazardous stunts along the way. His mastery is in making danger so entertaining.
The movie is layered with classic scenes. Hardly a minute goes by without a visual surprise. Like Chaplin, Keaton realized the comic accent of playing a physical gag against a more subtle interpretation of the causes that set up the gag.
Take the famous scene where Johnnie beseeches Annabelle to stoke the locomotive furnace during their getaway. She begins by daintily tossing in tiny pieces of wood, then discards a larger plank because it has an unsightly knot hole.
As Keaton stares in disbelief, Annabelle starts to sweep up, all while the Union soldiers are quickly gaining. Exasperated by her obliviousness, he begins to strangle Annabelle. But soon enough it’s her femininity that inspires him, and he’s kissing her instead.
And the movie’s final scene, where Johnnie, now promoted to a lieutenant because of his heroism, must balance bussing his girl while doing his duty by saluting a stream of soldiers, is touched by romantic whimsy.
Director’s cue: Movie lovers, you may also want to take a look at Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and Casablanca. For more film articles, please visit Nick Smithville.