As a kid, one of my favorite family pleasures was a night out at the Old Spaghetti Factory in Old Town in Portland, Oregon. As we waited to be seated to enjoy a spaghetti dinner, the restaurant would show black and white silent films in the lobby. They were just one reel shorts starring silent film comedians such as Harold Lloyd or Laurel and Hardy. I enjoyed watching the silent films as much as I did eating.
One silent film comedian whose films I don't recall seeing at the Old Spaghetti Factory were those starring Buster Keaton. Keaton may be one of the greatest silent film comedians that today's moviegoer knows little about. It wasn't until I was studying film at Loyola Marymount University that I first heard about Keaton through a college buddy. And it wasn't until the early 1990's that I finally saw a Buster Keaton film at the great Brattle Theater in Harvard Square in Boston, Massachusetts. The film was SEVEN CHANCES (1925) and I never laughed so hard in my life.
With his sad hound dog eyes, rubbery face and amazing athleticism, Buster Keaton was in the right place at the right time to be a comedian in silent films. Not only did Keaton have his own production company but he also directed and co-wrote some of his own films. He often improvised many of his best comic moments. Keaton was certainly a rival to the other great silent film comedian - Charlie Chaplin.
One of Buster Keaton's best films, based on an actual event during the Civil War known as Andrews Raid or the Great Locomotive Chase is the silent film comedy THE GENERAL (1926). Most Keaton fans rank it as his greatest work but I had never seen it before. In fact, silent films are usually not high on my list of movies to see. I was born of the age of sound and color. The only two full length silent films I recall watching are PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925) and NOSFERATU (1922). Film makers were just learning their craft in the age of silent films. When Keaton made THE GENERAL in 1926, he was fully at the top of his game.
THE GENERAL begins in the spring of 1861, at the beginning of the Civil War. Buster Keaton plays Johnny Gray, a train engineer who runs the locomotive known as the General. Johnny has two loves in his life - his engine and a girl named Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack). When the North fires upon Fort Sumter, every southern man in Marietta, Georgia goes to enlist including Annabelle's father (Charles Smith) and brother (Frank Barnes). Johnny races to the recruitment office ahead of them but he's turned down. Annabelle's father and brother mistakenly believe Johnnie didn't want to enlist and tell Annabelle. She tells Johnny she doesn't want to see him again until he's in a uniform.
A year later, Johnny is still the engineer for the General. Unknown to Johnny, Annabelle boards his train to visit her wounded father. As the train stops for dinner in the town of Big Shanty, a group of Union spies led by Colonel Anderson (Glen Cavender) hijack the General. Their plan is to bring it back across northern lines to Chattanooga, Tennessee, destroying bridges and telegraph lines along the way, then hook up with General Parker and his Union army and return to attack the Confederates with trains to supply the attacking soldiers. Annabelle accidentally stumbles upon their plot and so they take her hostage. Johnny sees the General departing without him and gives chase of his beloved locomotive, first with a push car, then a bicycle, and finally, he "borrows" another locomotive.
Believing at first that many men are after them, the Union spies can't believe that it's just Johnny in pursuit. They leave all kinds of road blocks to stop Johnny. They throw large beams across the tracks and unhook burning cars as obstacles and even switch train rails on him. Johnny prevails and makes it across enemy lines. Hopelessly lost, hungry, and dripping wet from a terrible rainstorm, Johnny stumbles into a house that night which happens to be the headquarters for General Thatcher (Jim Farley) and the Union spies who stole the General. Hiding under a table, Johnny listens to their plot to attack the south.
Johnny also discovers they have his sweetheart Annabelle hostage. Once everyone has gone to bed, he sneaks Annabelle out of the house and they hide in the forest. The next day, Johnny puts Annabelle in a burlap bag, hides her in the luggage car, and hijacks the General back. This time, the Union spies chase Johnny and Annabelle all the way back across southern lines. Johnny and Annabelle now have to make road blocks to slow down their pursuers. Johnny brings the General back into Marietta and warns everyone that the Union army is coming. Johnny finally gets his chance to be a real Confederate soldier as both North and South armies converge at Rock River Bridge for a final battle.
I came away awestruck at how good THE GENERAL is on so many different levels. On a story level, Keaton and co-writer and co-director Clyde Bruckman mix grand scale cat and mouse train chases and a giant battle scene with lots of extras with intimate scenes of a guy just trying to impress his sweetheart. Keaton sets up little plot lines and threads early in the story and pays them off throughout the film. For example, Johnny wants to join the war to impress Annabelle. The Confederate army doesn't want him. At the end of THE GENERAL, Johnny accidentally captures a Union general and turns him in to the Southern general (Fredrick Vroom) who in turn makes Johnny a lieutenant. Annabelle's dream of Johnny wearing a uniform is realized.
Keaton doesn't take sides or make any political statements with THE GENERAL'S Civil War setting. Because Johnny is the hero, the South might be seen as the good side. The North steals the train and holds Annabelle hostage so they might be seen as the bad guys. But both sides act nobly. The Union men all have dark hair and beards. The Confederate general has the long white beard. In a silent black and white film, the stereotypes need to be clear so we know which side is which. The sad reality is now that Johnny is in the Confederate army, he'll probably get killed. Luckily, the film ends before that possibility ever plays out.
The choreography and logistics involved in filming THE GENERAL'S train sequences are as good as anything being made today. Watching the film, I kept asking myself how did they do this in 1926? Keaton places the camera in front of moving trains, behind moving trains, and racing alongside moving trains. Keaton's athleticism and agility are put to the test as he constantly leaps around the moving locomotive as well as jumping on and off the train time and time again. Keaton even has a David Lean moment as he stages a spectacular train crash off a collapsing bridge that precedes THE BRIDGE OVER THE RIVER KWAI (1957) by thirty one years.
THE GENERAL is a comedy and Keaton has some funny bits of genius with a cannon, a bag of shoes, and a sword. Most of the supporting cast are excellent for the way they look and gesture (this is a silent film after all) but Marion Mack really stands out as Annabelle. She is Keaton's equal in physical comedy and seems to be a good sport whether she's dumped into a burlap sack or drenched by water. Keaton's directing is as impressive as his comedic talents. In staging the battle, he has some beautiful shots of soldiers silhouetted in the smoke and sunlight. And his framing of the three southern men who turned down his initial request to enlist him as he brings them a captured Union general is priceless.
For us Oregonians, THE GENERAL holds a special place in Oregon film history as Keaton filmed most of THE GENERAL in Cottage Grove, Oregon and around the McKenzie River. He even used the Oregon National Guard to play both Union and Rebel soldiers.
THE GENERAL may be a silent film but it speaks loudly that many great films were made during the silent age of movies. Great storytelling, directing, and acting is the key ingredient whether a film is silent or talkie; color or black and white. Buster Keaton was one of the best of the best in the 1920's but would fall upon hard times creatively and personally during the 1930's. Thankfully, Keaton's genius as a comedic actor and director would be rediscovered later in his life by film fans around the world. Go discover Buster Keaton and see for yourself.