I have a confession to make: I outed a celebrity last night. I felt mortified the moment I’d spoken the words, so I blame Buster Keaton. I had just seen The General and was out of my head with Buster-induced bliss, and so, when a comic actor I love gestured me onto the escalator, I blurted, “Steve! It’s Jeff Garlin!” My husband had the presence of mind to ask Garlin if he’d just seen the movie too, and wasn’t it great? “Yes, just about as great as anything can be,” Garlin said. “It made me so happy.”
Exactly. It’s always an enormous pleasure to see this Buster Keaton classic, which may be my favorite of his feature-length films (though The Cameraman also delights me from start to finish). But to see it on a big screen, in a print recently restored by the Museum of Modern Art, preceded by two reels of brave and brilliant physical comedy from Steamboat Bill Jr. and accompanied by Ben Model? Heaven, I’m in heaven…
Most of the pleasures of The General are the same every time you see it, of course. Train conductor Johnny Gray is a prototypical Keaton hero, with his wistful melancholy, valiant heart, and frenetic bursts of astonishing action, not to mention that beautiful, soulful, sloe-eyed face. Marion Mack is as game as Buster’s leading ladies always had to be, her Annabelle Lee making Scarlett O’Hara look downright prissy and passive. The impressively realistic costumes and sets include military camps and battle scenes, but rather than glorify war Buster mocks it, showing the gallant Johnny’s hopeless incompetence as a soldier (it’s amazing how much comic business he can find in one discarded saber). And that’s not to mention the incredible stunts, all done without benefit of CGI or even stuntmen, or the laugh-out-loud funny but psychologically acute little bits of business that set up the characters and their relationships, like when Annabelle’s father tosses out a photo of Johnny with the junk mail.
But you don’t watch your favorite movies over and over just to see the same things every time. The films may not change, but we do, so there’s always something new to appreciate. This time around, I was struck by how well The General’s pacing still works, four generations after its 1926 debut. The world was a much slower place then and movies were still a pretty new medium, so filmmakers tended to draw things out far longer than they do now, keeping the camera running as actors held a dramatic pose or playing out scenes for what now feels like an eternity. But Buster’s pacing, which probably felt breakneck at the time, still holds up. The General opens with a sweetly funny, narratively economic setup that packs a lot into a short time. One bit, for instance, about two kids who follow him everywhere, tells us something about what a good guy Johnny is, provides us with an elegant variation on the old walk-this-way joke, and culminates in a beautiful little bit where Johnny tricks the kids into leaving him alone so he can court Annabelle.
As soon as we know everything we need to understand about our hero and his situation, we hurtle into the almost nonstop action of the rest of the film. Who knew you could wring this much suspense and laughter from a chase scene involving steam engines? Buster, who co-wrote and co-directed The General, also co-edited it, and I suspect it was he who made sure we always see just what we need to and not a frame more. There’s great comic timing in these edits, but there’s also a genius’s understanding of his medium. That train of Buster’s will always run ahead of the curve because he knew how to electrify us just enough to galvanize our imaginations without shorting them out.
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.