Short of the Month: The Frozen North (dir. Buster Keaton and Eddie Cline, 1922)

The Frozen North rarely appears on any Buster Keaton fan’s favorites list, yet it remains one of his most compelling short films. It’s a pitch black parody of Klondike melodramas and William S. Hart westerns, with a dash of Von Stroheim’s “the man you love to hate” for good measure. Keaton drops his usual persona to play a murdering, slimy villain– a very, very inept villain, but still a covetous murderer out to seduce another man’s wife.

Discussion of The Frozen North is often dominated by the context of the Roscoe Arbuckle manslaughter trials which dominated the papers in 1922. The usual story goes that William S. Hart insinuated Arbuckle was guilty in interviews with the press and that Keaton mercilessly mocked Hart’s onscreen persona as vengeance for the honor of his closest friend. In his autobiography My Wonderful World of Slapstick, Keaton stated his aims were more benign. He claimed parody was his favorite form of comedy and that his kidding Hart came from a place of admiration.

William S. Hart, the “Good Bad Man.” Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Hart’s persona was often described as “the Good Bad Man,” essentially an anti-hero redeemed by the final reel. For example, in The Toll Gate, Hart is a cold-blooded outlaw out for revenge against the partner-in-crime that betrayed him. He’s so vengeful that he considers taking his rage out on the traitor’s innocent wife, but by the end, he redeems himself, nobly gives up his love interest, and rides off alone. This is a far cry from Keaton’s nasty character here, who has no redeeming qualities.

The great limitation of parody is that the audience needs to be in on the joke. When you’re not familiar with Bill Hart or the Klondike melodramas popular when Keaton was making the film, some of the gags seem odd or random. Luckily, The Frozen North possesses a dreamlike surrealism that slightly accommodates these limitations. The strangeness of a cowboy emerging from a subway in a frozen landscape has its own weird charm, regardless of the proper context.

The “it was all a dream” ending can be seen as a cop-out, though it offers an interesting prefiguration of the frame story of Sherlock Jr, in which Keaton plays a projectionist who dreams himself into the movies. That film’s spoof qualities are more sophisticated than The Frozen North, with the characters in the “real” world taking on “reel” personas: the projectionist fashions himself after hyper-competent movie detectives and his love interest dresses like Mary Pickford. We can only assume the dreamer awaking in the theater at the close of The Frozen North is the usual hapless, porkpie hat-wearing version of Buster we’re used to seeing in Keaton’s more standard films, though what his dreaming about being a villain says about him is anyone’s guess.

You can easily get psychoanalytical– the usual placid Buster character dreams he is an aggressive amalgamation of William S. Hart and Erich von Stroheim, suggesting that the movies give us an outlet for our darker fantasies, the ones we suppress in order to seem “normal”… but I doubt this was Keaton’s intention. Given his bemused reaction to the academics who embraced his work in the 50s and 60s, it might be best to say he wanted to assure the audience that this short was only a nightmarish lark.

Sources:

Keaton’s Silent Shorts: Beyond the Laughter by Gabriella Oldham

My Wonderful World of Slapstick by Buster Keaton

The Eighth Buster Keaton Blogathon: The Vampire Diary of Buster Keaton and Bluffton

It’s finally here!!

Like any geek, I am protective of my favorite artists, particularly when it comes to the way they are portrayed in fiction. Biopics and historical novels that get these favorites wrong in the worst possible ways make my skin crawl. For example, seeing the multi-talented Mabel Normand portrayed as a shrewish hack in the 1992 Chaplin film makes me want to smash the DVD to atoms.

Ugh! This movie might merit its own post from me one day. Image source: https://haphazardstuff.com/chaplin-1992-a-review/

Of course, Buster Keaton ranks highest among my favorite creative people. He’s my favorite filmmaker, bar none, and a major inspiration to me both as an artist and a human being. He was flawed like anyone, but he was also persevering, loyal, and unpretentious.

If you’re a Keaton fan, don’t even try watching this thing. Image source: https://film.nu/filmer/the-buster-keaton-story/10197395.film

This makes certain portrayals of Keaton in fiction frustrating. Let’s take that oh-so charming load of slop The Buster Keaton Story as an example.  It stuffs Keaton’s life into a predictable 1950s biopic framework: a talented star on the rise is undone by a personal vice. All the focus goes to Keaton’s drinking problem and post-sound career slump. We have no idea what distinguished him as a man or as a comedian, let alone as a cinematic master. As far as this movie is concerned, he was a professional alcoholic who did pratfalls on camera now and then.

That’s why I wanted to highlight two excellent Keaton-centric novels for this blogathon: The Vampire Diary of Buster Keaton by Tracy Lord and Bluffton: My Summers with Buster by Matt Phelan. On the surface, these books are wildly different: one’s a vampire thriller for adults, the other is a gentle graphic novel for children. But both present Buster Keaton as a nuanced personality without making him a Genius-Saint or a Pagliacci.

The Vampire Diary of Buster Keaton by Tracy S. Wolfe

It’s 1927 and Buster Keaton is having it rough. His marriage to Natalie Talmadge is crumbling, his latest movie The General is not performing as expected, the studio system is starting to swallow up independent creators like himself– oh, and he’s being stalked by two fans. Fans who happen to be vampires.

Vida and Lee Anne decide to make Keaton their latest “pet,” threatening the lives of his loved ones to keep him under their control. However, Keaton starts to enjoy the sensually-charged escape vampire bites give him and he’s particularly drawn to the mysterious, soulful Vida. Unfortunately, Lee Anne is a jealous sociopath and the vampire underworld is not pleased about two of their own threatening undead anonymity by hooking such an illustrious snack.

I admit I am not the biggest vampire aficionado. I’ve read Dracula a few times and love George Romero’s revisionist Martin, but that’s about as far as my love for the blood-sucking undead goes. Wolfe’s book has not converted me into a vampire lover, but it is a good read, especially for Keaton fans.

What stands out most is Wolfe’s historical research. She knows Keaton inside out and even weaves her knowledge of his family history into the vampire narrative. She thoroughly nails the Roaring Twenties down too, from the social attitudes to the slang.

I also loved the little nods to other vampire stories. The most obvious is the book’s epistolary framework, evoking the articles, journals, and transcriptions that make up Stoker’s Dracula. The main meat of the book takes the form of journal entries narrated from Buster’s perspective, but these are bookended by emails between the discoverer of this “vampire diary” and individuals seeking to contest or accept the validity of the document. While this never ties into the overall narrative in any deep way, it is amusing.

Wolfe’s crowning achievement is her characterization of Buster himself. Narrated in first person, you can practically hear that deep, gravelly voice in your head. Buster is funny, self-deprecating, creative, and reserved. He is loyal to his family and friends, even if his relationships with his father and his wife are strained. He loves his work, even if it isn’t always appreciated by the audience or the critics.

Best of all, Keaton is allowed to be flawed. In my decade-plus time as a Buster fan, I have noticed a tendency in fandom to present Keaton as a guileless victim in every area of his life. Everything that ever went wrong for him is either blamed on the Talmadges, Joe Keaton, Joe Schneck, Louis B. Mayer, or whoever. Keaton is basically made into a Holy Fool undone by an unfeeling Hollywood. Wolfe credits Keaton with more agency than that. While he is initially blackmailed into being vampire chow, Keaton comes to see his interactions with the vampires as an escape not unlike being drunk. Just as in real life, Keaton is the partial author of his own unhappiness, but he is also a man concerned with doing right by his loved ones. His inner conflict on the matter is wonderful.

The original characters are no slouch either. Vida and Lee Anne are a striking duo. What’s great about them is how they are without a doubt menacing, but sympathetic and nuanced enough to avoid being simplistic monsters. I was particularly stunned by Lee Anne, who is quite evil (her manner of speaking and gleeful sadism brought to mind Harley Quinn from Batman: The Animated Series), but made extra compelling by her almost poignant love of Hollywood fluff.

There are a few caveats some readers might have with the novel, but they stem from the vampire genre more than anything. Firstly, there’s some violence, with decapitations and bad run-ins with sunlight– which is to be expected when the bloodsucking undead are involved. Secondly, there are sex scenes, some of them graphic. Once again, your mileage may vary, though you can skip them without missing key story information if you so wish.

All in all, I would definitely recommend The Vampire Diary of Buster Keaton. There is just so much to love, from the well-realized setting to appearances from other stars of the period. Even if you’re not big into vampires, Keaton’s characterization and the fast-moving thriller plot will keep you riveted.

Bluffton: My Summers with Buster by Matt Phelan

Young Henry thinks he lives a painfully ordinary life in turn-of-the-century Muskegon, Michigan. His life is shaken up when the vaudevillians come to town for the summer. During this time, Henry makes the acquaintance of the child-comedian Buster Keaton. Buster is athletic, creative, and able to make people laugh with ease. Being a big star in a vaudeville act, Buster has everything Henry desires, but Buster is more interested in baseball and pranks than discussing his stage career.  Can this friendship survive a case of mutual envy?

It’s difficult for most books to strike a balance between entertainment and education, especially when writing for children. Reading Bluffton, it’s clear that Matt Phelan wants to introduce the colorful world of vaudeville to young readers without turning the narrative into a dry history lesson. Phelan does this successfully, weaving the historical lessons into a touching narrative about learning to appreciate ordinary life.

Unlike The Vampire Diary, Buster is not the protagonist. That would be Henry, who like the rest of us is an outsider looking in at the crazy world of vaudeville. As a character, Henry is more than just a starstruck fish-out-of-water or a self-insert for the reader. In his small-town ordinariness, he’s a foil for Buster. Buster is famous and on the move constantly, which seems like a dream come true for a kid living in a quiet town. But for Buster, the celebrity’s life is a little overrated.

Keaton takes pride in his abilities and loves the roar of the crowd, but he knows Henry is lucky to not have to bear the adult burdens he must prematurely. It’s easy to forget he shouldered a great many responsibilities at such a tender age and that he was essentially the family breadwinner (a role Keaton retained throughout his life). The story also hints at Joe Keaton’s alcoholism, which as any fan knows, only became worse as Buster grew into adolescence.

Everyone in town but Henry catches on to the less glamorous elements of Buster’s life. Eventually, Henry begins to notice how much is actually going on around him and that his little town is not as boring as he believed. His neighbors have their own talents, such as music and painting, that they practice without the need to become famous or wealthy. Life does not need an audience or 24/7 excitement to be meaningful.

This message is a universal one, but it’s especially relevant in our FOMO-ridden age of social media. Millennials and Gen-Zers tend to think they’re all failures if they haven’t made an impact before age 25. (Not a prodigy? Not a millionaire? And you’re at the advanced age of 26?? You must be worthless!) Books like this make you wonder if Keaton actually did ever look out into the crowd and envy them in turn, at least once in a while.

Overall, this is a fine book. Kids who love history will enjoy it and anyone of any vintage can enjoy the gorgeous watercolor illustrations. Buster fans will love the imaginative peek into Keaton’s childhood summers.

As I was in the process of editing this post, it was announced that there’s going to be a new Buster Keaton biopic. Unfortunately, it’s based on the infamous Marion Meade biography, known for making… um, bizarre claims (like Keaton being illiterate) and further pushing the notion of Buster Keaton as a sad clown. I don’t want to make any judgements, though given my experience with Hollywood biopics in general, I’m not optimistic. There is a tendency to turn people into caricatures of who they really were for the sake of D-R-A-M-A, even though more often than not, the messy reality of a person’s life is more compelling.

That’s why these two books are such great reads from the perspective of a Keaton fan. Here we have no perfect angel in slapshoes, no sad clown. Both books acknowledge that real life is more complicated than our retrospective simplifications, allowing Keaton’s humanity to shine through. I would absolutely recommend them to you.

This post is for the Eighth Buster Keaton Blogathon hosted by the marvelous Silentology! Check out this link for more Buster-y goodness!

Sources:

Bluffton: My Summers with Buster by Matt Phelan

https://www.busterkeaton.org/myths

http://www.outofthepastblog.com/2013/07/interview-with-matt-phelan.html

The Vampire Diary of Buster Keaton by Tracy S. Wolfe

Whimsy and suspense in Buster Keaton’s Our Hospitality (warning – spoilers for 98 year old movie)

It’s intriguing how during the 1920s, Buster Keaton’s features tended to be seen as less dramatic than Chaplin’s. I recall one critic of the period claiming Keaton (and Harold Lloyd) “openly tickle” the audience while only Chaplin was interested in providing an emotional experience.

That sentiment is total nonsense when you think about Our Hospitality. Only Keaton’s second feature film, it represents a major evolution in his storytelling. Three Ages was episodic, essentially three shorts strung together. In contrast, Our Hospitality is a fully developed narrative with dramatic stakes that would not be out of place in a Hitchcock movie.

Strangely, it makes me think of Chaplin’s The Kid—not in terms of tone, as the two movies are nothing alike, but in terms of the way it blends comedy with other genres. The Kid features heavy melodrama that induces more tears than laughter for me. Our Hospitality keeps me on the edge of my seat from the sheer suspense.

This mood comes on strong from the first scene. For those who think Keaton is only a “tickler,” this opening can be shocking, since there is no humor in it at all, not even a twinkle of irony. During a stormy night, two men locked in a generations-spanning feud shoot one another dead. Their families grieve both their lost loved ones and the sad fact that these killings will only extend the vengeance into perpetuity.

Keaton’s plucky, modest persona isn’t a relief from the tension. It makes the audience fear more for his life when he’s cornered by the physically imposing, revenge-obsessed Canfield family. The feud is no laughing matter and the movie makes it clear that Buster isn’t going to be able to walk off a bullet in this storyverse. If he gets shot, he’s dead. Movie over.

It’s amazing how the movie juggles so many tones. It’s got humor and suspense, which as we’ve seen in other films often do go hand in hand, but there is also a gentle whimsy augmenting these elements. The prolonged train scene offers more than gags about how quaint and rural America used to be before mass industrialization—it also provides the sense that the refined Willie McKay is moving to unfamiliar territory where his guilelessness will be a liability.

In the end, love wins the day. Willie outwits his would-be killers (attacking them back seems to be only a last resort judging by that last gag), rescues the girl, and makes peace with the Canfields. In a great many stories, the hero has to beat up, kill, or even just humiliate the villain. I’m not saying that’s an unacceptable approach, but it is always refreshing to see a story where reconciliation is the answer. That might be why I go back to Our Hospitality so often. Its gentleness is all the more appealing in a landscape where so many film “comedies” rely on vulgarity and mean-spiritedness to entertain the audience.

“Father and son” – Steamboat Bill Jr. (dir. Buster Keaton, Charles Reisner, 1928)

annex-keaton-buster-steamboat-bill-jr-_nrfpt_03

Steamboat Bill Jr. is Buster Keaton’s final independent film, though not necessarily the last one in which he had creative control. His first work with MGM, The Cameraman, could be said to hold that title, so when you watch Steamboat Bill Jr. there is not the same sense of the bittersweet you may get when watching Keaton’s final 1928 masterpiece. However, there is something grand about Steamboat Bill Jr., not just in its dazzling final hurricane sequence, tight sense of plotting and structure, or Buster’s increasingly creative pratfalls, but in the emotional heart of the story, young Willie Canfield’s efforts to simultaneously please his father Bill Sr. (Ernest Torrance) and be with his college girlfriend, Kitty (Marion Byron)— a hard task, considering her father and his are rivals in the river boat transportation business.

It is true that Keaton’s films often show his characters more comfortable with props and animals than other people; this is perhaps the largest reason why his characters feel otherworldly, as though he hailed from another dimension altogether and were perplexed by ordinary human interaction. Perhaps more than any of Keaton’s previous films, Steamboat Bill Jr. has Keaton interacting with other characters constantly, and they are some of the most interesting supporting characters in his oeuvre.

Keaton’s feature characters don’t often have families. With the exceptions of the aunt in Our Hospitality who warns him of the feud, the parents in Battling Butler who push him to “rough it” in the wilderness in order to become less dependent on luxury, and the doting mother in College (played by 1910s comedienne Florence Turner, no less!), most Keaton protagonists are loners looking for a place to call home or at least someone to share home with (often a love interest, sometimes a cow). Yet in Steamboat Bill Jr. unlike any other Keaton movie, the protagonist’s family is a source of conflict. In Keaton’s short work, Torrance may have been purely the heavy with his scowling face and towering build, but here that function is complicated: he is the bullying heavy, but he is also Willie’s perplexed father. Willie’s petite frame, stylish clothes, and enthusiastic ukulele-playing have the burly Bill fearing his son may be a wimp at best or a touch “purple under the collar” at worst. And while Willie’s relationship with Kitty may dispel the latter anxiety, his prime desire is to make Willie more of what he thinks a man ought to be. Being a son who wants to please the father he’s never known, Willie agrees to go along with it.

annex-keaton-buster-steamboat-bill-jr-_03

Irritated with his son’s college boy aesthetic, Bill Sr. takes Willie to the hat shop to try on a series of comically oversized hats. Of course, the scene is funny, what with the silly headwear and Buster’s attempts to look as dignified as possible in them, but the scene is hardly frivolous or throwaway. It serves an important narrative function: the main conflict of the film is father versus son, or perhaps more specifically, the father wanting to fashion his son into his own image. Yet the moment Bill Sr. is satisfied with a hat and the two Canfields leave the shop, the headwear is blown off of Willie’s head the moment they leave the shop. Already, we are shown through the visuals that Bill’s mission is a doomed one; Willie cannot be changed and, as we come to learn later, should not be.

And yet despite Bill’s distaste for his son being who he is, he is not presented as a terrible person or black-hatted villain. Indeed, Bill is protective of his son, knocking out any sailor who attempts to bully or beat up on Willie. And once his violent temper lands him in prison, he gains a newfound respect for his effete son’s resourcefulness in the hilarious and celebrated tools-in-bread sequence. Like Annabelle Lee in The General who so wanted Johnnie Gray to be a soldier, Bill Sr. discovers that there was nothing wrong with his son after all, he never needed to change himself to prove heroic. (Throughout the picture, Keaton and Torrance have such wonderful chemistry in general; it’s too bad they never shared the screen again. It could have livened up some of the dreadful projects MGM had in store for Keaton in the early 1930s.)

In the end, Willie more than proves himself, as Keaton’s heroes often do. Yes, he may not be physically intimidating or as willing to pick a fight, but he does manage to possess bravery, intelligence, and resourcefulness when he rescues Kitty and Bill from drowning. Willie is also forgiving. Both Bill and Kitty want Willie’s complete, unwavering loyalty to one or the other of them; both become angry when he fails to split ties with either of them. Rejected by both, Willie has no reason to stay in Mississippi, yet he sees his father in distress and stays to help him. After rescuing his father and his girl, all three reconcile and are allowed to live happily ever after.

Keaton’s last two truly Keaton-esque features, Steamboat Bill Jr. and The Cameraman, allow his protagonist to be more vulnerable in a way, put into situations where we see more of his emotional side in regards to human interactions. Not that he is cold or machine-like in his earlier features as some silent film aficionados have claimed: for me, his hurt and humiliation during the early scenes of The General, where Annabelle Lee rejects him, are moving— though Keaton does not keep you feeling sorry for his hero for long because dammit, we’ve got a train engine to save! But the intensified emotional qualities of these two films make them stand out, all culminating in that famously heartbreaking descent into the sand scene in The Cameraman. The father-son moments and romantic scenes in Steamboat Bill Jr. and much of The Cameraman are perfect illustrations of what film scholar Imogen Sara Smith means when she claims Keaton’s movie persona is like “Baked Alaska in reverse,” cool to the touch, warm at the center.

(Images courtesy of Doctor Macro)

The Second Annual Buster Keaton blogathon: Top 10 post-1940s appearances

There are many who view the last thirty-something years of Buster Keaton’s life as a tragedy worthy of the absurdists, ignoring his own statements about considering himself fabulously lucky. Many Keatonphiles take him at his word nowadays, though it is hard not to be disappointed that after 1928, he was never again behind or in front of the camera on projects like The General or Steamboat Bill Jr. Still, that does not mean his later career is worthless; in fact, there are a lot of moments that are quite fun and rewarding. In the spirit of the second annual Buster Keaton blogathon, I’ve decided to make a top ten list ranking my favorites of his post-1940 film and television appearances… at least, of what I have seen so far, which is quite a bit. So relax and enjoy; I’ll provide clips where I am able.

  1. The Triumph of Lester Snapwell

Yeah, this is pretty much a twenty minute commercial for Kodak, but it is a mildly funny trip through the history of Kodak’s many photographic technologies. Keaton plays the titular hero, who travels through the 1860s, 1880s, 1920s, 1950s, and eventually the contemporary 1960s on a quest to perfectly photograph his girlfriend Clementine and her battle axe mother. Though the Party City-ish historical costumes make me cringe (especially that ridiculous outfit they try to pass off as flapper get-up, woof!), the short is more enjoyable than you would suspect.

  1. Route 66 – “Journey to Nineveh”

Having never seen other episodes of this series (though I understand it’s usually much more dramatic than this), I cannot judge this fifty minute episode on how well it fits into Route 66, but even so I had a pretty good time watching it as a BK fan. He plays a luckless fellow named Jonah who just wants to catch a fish and hitch a ride back to his brother (played by Joe E. Brown) so he can give him a cake for his birthday. Complications ensue when the ex-fiancée Brown’s granddaughter claims Brown stole the engagement ring to buy a truck; of course, the granddaughter put the ring in Keaton’s fishing kit, so they have to pray he’ll get home in one piece with it in tow, lest Brown be stuck in jail.

The story is honestly average and the granddaughter is beyond irritating, weeping and wailing every other line, but it’s worth it for Keaton (and/or Brown, if you’re a hardcore fan of his). While his pratfalls are needlessly saddled with cringe-worthy cartoon sound effects that would make Bugs Bunny cry in pain, his best moments are the less overtly slapstick-ish ones, such as his managing to cram a massive amount of luggage into the back of the protagonists’ Chevrolet, his adorable interactions with Shaddy the dog, or the satisfying yet understated resolution to the issue of whether or not the birthday cake was pulverized by their trying journey into town. It’s not a laugh riot, but it is very cute. The episode can be found on Hulu or you can rent it on YouTube.

  1. The Twilight Zone – “Once Upon a Time”

The great derp face

The great derp face

A rare comic episode for this strange series, “Once Upon a Time” has both Keaton and one of life’s most important lessons, namely that the grass ain’t always greener on the other side, or in this case, another time. Keaton plays a janitor from the 1890s; dissatisfied with the noise and expense of modern life, he nabs a time helmet from his scientist boss and decides to try the future on for a spin. Landing in the noisier world of 1960s America, he reconsiders his complaints. The 1890s scenes are silent, complete with intertitles and what people thought silent film music should sound like (tinkling pianos). The then-present is all sound, full of background noise to emphasize the divide between the past and future.

The episode does have issues, like the other characters being a little too obnoxious for me and some of the slapstick being uninspired. Still, most of it is cute and funny, with Keaton being given a relative amount of creative freedom. Worth a watch. The episode can be viewed on Hulu.

  1. Candid Camera

Keaton was a lifelong lover of practical jokes, so it’s no surprise he appeared on Candid Camera. I’m particularly fond of the segment where he goofs around unsuspecting patrons in a diner, especially with all those people trying their best not to be rude by laughing.

  1. Limelight

Despite all the nasty rumors that circulate around the sole time Keaton and Chaplin shared the screen together (concerning everything from Chaplin’s treatment of Keaton to the idea that he was jealous of him and cut some of his stuff out of spite… even though that would make sense considering this is Chaplin’s project, one that is more drama than comedy anyway), their little routine in Limelight is a lot of fun for silent comedy nerds.

It’s a fun little routine, with the two masters playing hapless concert hall musicians who just can’t get their instruments to work, and once they manage that, Chaplin’s violinist is thrown into artistic frenzy, with Keaton’s deadpan pianist trying his best to keep up with the insanity. For two artists with such differing styles and aims in their craft, the two manage a low-key chemistry that makes you want more interaction between them. It’s also a great example of how different they were: Chaplin is the extrovert who uses his body as the source for humor, while Keaton is reserved and prefers props. As James Neibaur said in his book The Fall of Buster Keaton, this sequence “reminds us of each comedian’s own special magic.”

As a bonus, here’s Keaton doing the same skit on television with Martha Raye (who had also played opposite Chaplin in the black comedy Monsieur Verdoux):

This time Keaton is leading the action, the pace is faster, and there are additional gags. The two versions make for interesting comparison.

  1. San Diego, I Love You

We all know San Diego, I Love You as “that one movie where Buster smiles.” Considering he also smiled in many of the 1910s Arbuckle shorts and at the end of the underrated Le Roi de Champys-Elysses, one has to wonder why this seven minute cameo warrants as much attention as it does.

For one thing, the bus driver Keaton’s playing appears to possess a great deal of character and inner life for such a small part. He’s trapped in his routine-ridden life, miserable and angry driving along the same ugly route every day, saying things like, “Being alive is monotonous.” The two protagonists “subtly” advise him to drive along the beach for a change (and by “subtly,” I mean they may as well have used a sledge hammer to beat the idea into his brain); at first, the bus driver reacts with hostility to the very idea of busting up routine, but seduced by the idea of scenic beauty and spontaneity, he swerves into another lane and exclaims, “For ten years, I’ve been driving this route and for ten years most of ya have been riding with me through the cursed backyards and I’m sick of it! I’m gonna drive along the beach and the consolidated bus company can go shoot itself!” With the exception of a henpecked husband afraid of angering his wife, everyone else agrees that routine is overrated and supports the notion of mixing things up a little.

Then they all go off and drive along the beach, with a band conveniently located in the back and Buster the Bus Driver lighting up a cigarette. He says he may not be able to take such a detour again if he wants to keep his job, but the audience can tell that the driver from then on will be a much happier man open to the simple beauties of life. And then in the end, he has that beautiful, spontaneous smile, one that I much prefer to the rather strained one Keaton gives at the end of Le Roi. It’s a nice, quiet, almost lyrical moment and it just melts the old heart.

  1. The Villain Still Pursued Her

I know I’m probably—okay, definitely biased— but I’m convinced that Buster Keaton is the only worthwhile aspect of this clunker of a picture. A parody of Victorian melodrama (“Hark! Who knocks?!” and “I shall go to yon hill! Hark! A man approaches!” and best of all, “Come now, me proud beauty! Aha, at last I have you in my power—helpless and alone!”), it’s mostly uninspired and gets old quick, like an SNL skit stretched out beyond comfort or entertainment value.

Keaton plays the alcoholic protagonist’s loyal best friend and basically does most of the heroics, confronting practitioners of mustache-twirling villainy and defending the heroine’s virtue from unwanted advances, always proclaiming, “Just in the nick of time!” From his first appearance, he’s active and a lot of fun, or his name’s not *looks at the screen* WILLIAM DALTON!! After trudging through material such as the Columbia shorts from this period, it’s so nice to see Buster playing a character who’s both a competent badass and dryly humorous. It’s little over an hour long, so for a Keaton fan, it’s worth watching just once, especially to hear him say lines like, “Be off before I come at ya like a steam engine—chugga, chugga, chugga!”

Interesting to note that Eddie Cline, long-time collaborator of Keaton’s during the 1920s, sat in the director’s chair. And just in case you’re wondering, yes, Buster can still rock nineteenth century clothing like a boss.

  1. The Railrodder

Often considered Keaton’s final great film appearance. The results are funny, wistful, and a little bittersweet when one knows this was one of the last things Buster ever did. The Railrodder was made as an advertisement for Canadian tourism, but it’s so much more than that. Concerning Buster’s quiet railroad adventure through the beautiful Canadian wilderness, one could easily imagine this short as an elderly Johnnie Gray’s vacation, what with the shenanigans going on, Buster’s expressive face, and the understated physical humor (and dangerous stunt work) throughout.

  1. The Buster Keaton Show

Part of what makes this one so special is that it’s about as close as we’re going to get to see what Buster was like in front of an audience. You can tell he’s enjoying every bit of laughter he’s getting; indeed, part of the appeal of early television for an old vaudevillian like Keaton was the presence of spectators.

The story of this episode is about as thin as one of Keaton’s two-reelers: Buster (or “BK” as he’s called by the other characters) wants to get into shape, so he hires a personal trainer. Of course, there’s the presence of a homicidally jealous man who craves blood whenever any man so much as taps his woman on the shoulder to complicate things. Gags are recycled from Battling Butler and Spite Marriage, but there’s plenty of new material in there too. The sequence with Buster shooting hoops is just amazing and his creative solutions to comic problems are as inspired as ever.

Also worth watching due to this being a reunion of sorts for Keaton with his old collaborator Clyde Bruckman and former onscreen rival Harold Goodwin (of College and The Cameraman fame).

  1. Rhenigold Theatre – “The Awakening”

It’s ironic that my favorite post-1940 appearance of Keaton’s is not from a comedy at all, but from a dystopian drama. On her IMDB review of the episode, Imogen Sara Smith described “The Awakening” as the antidote for Buster Keaton fans disenchanted with his appearances in Beach Party schlock and beer commercials. One of the few purely dramatic roles Keaton essayed in his career, “The Awakening” reveals how versatile he was as an actor. Even without the moments of physical grace and pratfalls and stunts, Keaton is a marvel playing a lonely, vulnerable man, a tool of a totalitarian regime who comes to stand up for justice and humanity.

Watching “The Awakening” is like seeing one of Keaton’s protagonists transplanted into an Orwellian nightmare where human life is cheap and compassion is a foreign concept, beaten down and frustrated in a job cataloging missing persons. After being robbed of an overcoat he had struggled to save for (and one that had given him an immense amount of respect from those who had looked down upon him), Keaton realizes how inhumane the world has become. Appearing before the Big Brother-like tyrant who rules over this hellhole, Keaton gives a speech often compared to the one Chaplin delivers at the end of The Great Dictator, arguing for a more humane world:

“You can keep dismissing me. Stripping them of all power, disgracing them, and replacing them until the end of time and it still won’t get my overcoat back! And when I protest, they’ll still throw me into prison– because it’s not ‘they.’ They’re just part of a machine, a machine that was to give us so much happiness! This machine that reduces a broken heart to a number in a catalog, that says a hungry child is no more than 26583-Y! A machine that has forgotten what kindness, warmth, and pity means!

When you say you care, you lie! You can’t possibly care! None of us can care– we’ve forgotten how! This machine that has taken our souls– so let the machine die with you!”

Keaton delivers this monologue with a great deal of passion and righteous fury. And then, he goes from talk to violent action in a moment that brings to mind the climax of Battling Butler, where Buster’s milquetoast character flies into a fit of rage when his attacker strikes down his diminutive valet, going for the man’s throat again and again, even long after he’s knocked him unconscious. And like Keaton’s would-be boxer, the rebel of “The Awakening” recoils in horror when he realizes his own power, though by the end he does not regret a thing, choosing to continue to follow the path of the rebel to the end.

This post is part of the Second Annual Buster Keaton blogathon, hosted by the fabulous Silentology. Check out her website for more Buster-themed goodness!

The Second Annual Buster Keaton blogathon: Imogen Sara Smith’s “Buster Keaton: The Persistence of Comedy”

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There are two books that I reread every year without fail: Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and Imogen Sara Smith’s Buster Keaton: The Persistence of Comedy. The latter is the finest interpretation of Keaton’s style, persona, comedy, and impact that I have ever come across, freed of over-intellectual tosh and sordid Freudian rambling that turn some of the funniest and most dazzling pictures ever made into psychodramas of abuse and loneliness. Like Keaton himself, the book is beyond category, touching upon Keaton the artist, Keaton the man, how audiences in the 1920s reacted to him, his modern resurgence and acclaim, his place in popular culture, the weird fascination academics have with him, and a decent focus on his post-1933 career that does not treat the remaining thirty-three years of his existence as a tragedy worthy of Shakespeare, but as a triumph over adversity and despair.

It’s not a book for Keaton neophytes: I would suggest having some familiarity with his life. If you haven’t already, watch Kevin Brownlow’s three hour documentary Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow and then tackle this one, which you can snap up for fifteen dollars on Amazon. Smith is a marvelous writer: her analysis is easy to read, passionate and not burdened down with dry academia, so if you’re intimidated by the likes of a light read like Buster Keaton and the Dynamics of Visual Wit, then this may be more your speed and style. Few critics have been able to break down Keaton’s style the way Smith does. There’s no comparing him to Beckett or Kafka; Smith knows about a little thing called context and shows how Keaton was far more influenced by the world of vaudeville than absurdist philosophy.

The biographical elements are well done. Unlike certain authors who yearn for dirt, dirt, and more dirt when it comes to Keaton’s familial and romantic relationships, Smith displays good taste. She also has the good sense to shrug her shoulders when dealing with issues that we can never comprehend 100 percent, like just what went wrong between Keaton and Natalie Talmadge. (Smith wisely observes we have little documenting Talmadge’s side of the story and thus that first marriage will always be a mystery to the Keaton scholar and fan.) The biographical sections mainly focus on the things that tell us how Keaton’s screen persona and comedy developed, from his vaudeville roots and days at Comique with Roscoe Arbuckle and Al St. John. Smith breaks down Keaton as a director, how he preferred long shots since they allowed you to see that a great deal of the action was real and not faked, or how his minimalist acting style tended to rub off on his supporting players. There is an entire chapter analyzing the artistic success of The General, going into depth as to why people love that movie so much. Like me, Smith sees that film, and indeed Keaton’s oeuvre as a whole, as mastering the art of comic understatement. Reading her analysis and commentary always has me running to my Keaton Blu-ray collection, ready to revisit them once again.

Some have criticized the book as being too gushing in tone. I’ve come across those who take issue with the moments where Smith makes it clear she finds Keaton physically attractive, such as in the passage where she finds the feminine scorn directed at Keaton in the MGM bedroom farce Parlor, Bedroom, and Bath to be eye-roll worthy, saying “in fact, he looks particularly sexy in this film—sporting some very jazzy art deco pajamas” (190). Personally, I did not find the book overly gushy and uncritical. Smith is no doubt an enthusiast, but her enthusiasm is balanced, without fan-ish disregard for logic or anything else. She does have criticism for the mediocrity of shorts like the lackluster Daydreams and The Blacksmith, as well as the racist jokes in Seven Chances. She even argues that the final battle in The General can be seen as that film’s sole flaw.

What seals my affection for this book is the ending section, where Smith broadens her scope from Keaton to his place in the larger culture of the first half of the twentieth century, a time Smith deems “the golden of popular art” (244). She describes this period as being a time when “art and entertainment, highbrow and lowbrow, used to meet and mingle (if not always amiably) instead of drinking at separate water fountains.” Nowadays, we consider so many of the movies and pulp novels and music made for the masses back then to be classics. Heck, let me just give you her excellent rundown:

“[In the first half of the twentieth century, a]rtists and intellectuals were fascinated by vernacular forms, while the masses yearned to better themselves, worshipping paragons of ‘class’ like Fred Astaire, who was really a former vaudevillian from Ohio. In the twenties Anna Pavlova and the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo barnstormed around America performing for audiences who had never seen ballet before. In the thirties Benny Goodman played in Carnegie Hall; Hollywood films featured music by Alan Copland and choreography by George Balanchine… Jazz-classical hybrids like Rhapsody in Blue drew scorn from snobs and purists but generated enough excitement to drown them out…

This invigorating exchange of influences has grown scarce in an age when silent comedies are mostly seen in museums and film classes. Once scorned by the high-minded, they are now embraced by a minority of serious film buffs and scholars, who are often at a loss to do them justice without transporting them into a loftier cultural stratum than the one where they originated…

Passing through the phases of modernism and postmodernism, all of the arts have experimented with extremes of obscurity… Culture became a series of endurance tests: marathon theater performances, dances presented without music or sound scores that assault the ears, artworks that dare viewers to declare, that’s not art. Deliberately arcane art rewards a self-selected minority with the sense of ‘getting it,’ having the superior taste or erudition needed to meet its challenge. Difficult art can reward the effort needed to decipher it—Ulysses proves that—but not to a very broad audience… The divorce between art and entertainment has diminished both, though pop culture has suffered more. Driven solely by commercial motives, entertainment dives for the lowest common denominator, producing disposable, cynically vapid products. As artists fear the accusation of accessibility,the rest of society fears being labeled ‘elitist,’ getting down and dirty to prove their regular-guy credentials.” (245-46)

This is far, far different from today’s artistic and entertainment landscape. True “art” has to be inaccessible. “Entertainment” must be as dumbed down as possible, made to appeal to the 18-35 male demographic almost without fail. Not to say that is the case for every modern art film or big studio release, nor is that to say every film cranked out in pre-1970 Hollywood wasn’t pandering schlock, but there is a certain divide present.

At any rate, this is a fabulous book, for what it says about Keaton, his Hollywood, and how his legacy endures almost a century later. Keaton fans will devour it.

This post is part of the Second Annual Buster Keaton blogathon, hosted by the fabulous Silentology. Check out her website for more Buster-themed goodness!

Happy 120th birthday, Buster Keaton

Happy 120th to my favorite filmmaker, Buster Keaton! Due to grad school and work, I haven’t been able to put together an elaborate tribute, so let the man’s work speak for itself! The Goat is an excellent short comedy, as perfect a representative of Keaton’s style and humor as you can get from his oeuvre. It’s grown on me a great deal, possibly supplanting The Boat as my favorite of Buster’s short work. Enjoy!

See You in the Fall Blogathon: The motorcycle chase in Sherlock Jr. (dir. Buster Keaton, 1924)

This essay is for the See You in the Fall blogathon. Check out the roster for other posts celebrating our favorite moments in physical comedy. (Also forgive me for the lack of photos. WordPress is not co-operating today.

Sherlock Jr. was a monumental film in my earliest days of silent film geekdom. It was the film that solidified an admiration for silent cinema in general and converted me into a Buster Keaton fanatic overnight.

It’s hard to select a favorite scene. Buster jumping into the world of the screen and undergoing a series of editing shifts is rightly the most celebrated in the film and has been dissected countless times. The pool game is hilarious and creative (Hilariously creative? Creatively hilarious?). The moment where Buster seems to leap through his assistants stomach and disappear had me rewinding the film and still dazzles. But when push comes to shove, the motorcycle race to save Kathyrn MacGuire is the highlight of the movie for me.

The sequence starts off with Sherlock running down the street as he is pursued by one of his rival’s gang members. A mustachioed police officer on a motorcycle stops to question Sherlock as to what’s the matter, causing the pursuing goon to retreat; however, it turns out the officer is really Sherlock’s assistant Gillette in a not-so-convincing faux-stache (a cute in-joke referring to actor William Gillette, who played Sherlock Holmes onstage and in a 1916 film version long thought lost, only to be rediscovered last year). Sherlock hops onto the front of the bike and points Gillette in the direction of the place where the heroine is being held against her will.

Unfortunately for Sherlock, Gillette is tossed off the bike when they hit a pothole, leaving Sherlock balanced on the handlebars as the bike rushes driver-less through the streets. Unwitting of his predicament, Sherlock is taken at high speeds through the busy roads in town, through a bachelor party in the country, barely evading trains, trucks, trees, dynamite, and collapsing bridges. Either his guardian angel is working overtime or fate is being especially good to him until he crashes through the window of a shack and knocking one of the occupiers through the opposite window. Conveniently, the shack is where the heroine is being held and the victim of Buster’s dramatic entry is none other than one of the rival’s goons.

Keaton’s physicality is astounding. No doubt today, the scene would be shot with a CG double in the long shots or the actor in front of a green screen. Not in the silent era and certainly not under Keaton’s watch: he learned how to control the bike from the handlebars before shooting and shot the majority of the sequence on actual streets. There are a few moments of cinematic trickery, such as the bit with Buster evading a train being played backwards or the two trucks forming a bridge being a composite shot, but if you’re expecting rear projection or miniatures, you will not find them here.

The funniest moment comes when Sherlock realizes his situation, turning around only to find Gillette has been long gone. The bike jerks as though channeling the character’s shock. Then Sherlock looks straight into the camera with a look of indignation, as though we should have mentioned this mishap to him from beyond the fourth wall.

The magic of the scene comes from its illusion of spontaneity. While silent comedians did do a great deal of improvisation, there’s little chance that a sequence as intricate as the motorcycle chase had much room for that. That it feels so immediate, as though this were all unfolding in real time and operating on the good graces of Lady Luck, is a testament to Keaton and his creative team.

College (dir. James W. Horne, 1927)

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Out of Buster Keaton’s independent features, I would have to say Three Ages and College seem to tie as the least favorite for most fans. Not that anyone outright dislikes these films as far as I know, but many do feel they represent Keaton and his team at their least inspired. It’s believed that the financial disappointment of the comedy epic The General forced something a bit safer and more formulaic upon Keaton, further souring the behind the scenes story of this picture. But should College really be looked upon so harshly? After all, if the similarly low-key Battling Butler had the misfortune of being made after the high point of Keaton’s magnum opus rather than before, if the places were switched, would we view College as negatively as we do? Were the places switched, would it in fact be considered underrated in the extreme?

Keaton is Ronald, a nerdy high school graduate who happens to be dating Mary (Anne Cornwall), the most popular girl of the class. Having more intellectual smarts than common sense, Ronald gives a speech about the uselessness of athletics in front of his classmates—all of whom are either athletes or sports fans. Offended and embarrassed to be associated with him, Mary breaks up with Ronald, telling him she’ll return to him if he “changes [his] mind about athletics.”

Hardcore nerd Ronald may be, but Mary’s affections reign supreme in his world, so the freshman decides to follow her to the expensive Clayton University. Of course, the path to true love does not run smooth: being from a middle class background, Ronald is forced to work a series of odd jobs to pay his way through higher education; he’s the target of campus bully Harold (Harold Goodwin, who turned out to be one of Keaton’s lifelong pals off-screen) and love rival Harold; and his attempts to break into the campus sports scene result in one epic fail after the other.

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The film is largely episodic: Ronald attempts to either hold down a job or try out for one of the sports teams on-campus, fails, embarrasses himself in front of a sympathetic Mary and a snickering Harold, rinse, repeat. These vignettes range from highly entertaining to unpleasant. The restaurant sequence is universally considered the low point of the movie, with Buster appearing in blackface due to the establishment only wanting “colored help.” (Yes, this was another time where white audiences thought this way okay; that does not make it inoffensive). The parts where Ronald gets booed while giving his speech about “The Curse of Athletics” or hazed by his brawnier classmates always feel too nasty to be funny.

But what does work is fabulous. My favorite episodes in the film are the soda shop and track sequences. The soda shop is truly classic Keaton routine (one I’m surprised he never recycled for any of his later television or stage work), a great example of one character doing something with style and grace and then the main character emulating them but getting everything wrong. The soda jerk behind the counter does his work of making milkshakes with deftness and ease, catching ice cream scoops and sliding down glasses to customers with just the right amount of momentum. Ronald’s own performance of these duties is a delightful parody of physical grace, his own concoctions a wonderful mess.

The track and field scene isn’t especially groundbreaking, but it has two things going for it. The first is that it’s relatively inspired. Buster gets to jump about and torture himself in various amusing ways, my favorite being his attempt to pole vault which leaves him with his upper half stuck in the ground, his legs protruding from the dust like ungainly daisies. And the second reason? Well, it should really count against the believability of the story all things considered; we’re told Ronald is this physically-challenged nerd, made to think that under those sweaters and baggy tops he has the physique of Steve Urkel, yet the moment he changes into those track clothes we see a lean, muscular man. The only in-universe explanations I can come up with are that either Ronald got those muscles from heavy text books or being bitten by a radioactive spider during a field trip. The illusion of the nerd is broken, but—my goodness, Keaton looks so good in those clothes! No complaints here!

Psst, Buster--- your gorgeous physique is showing!

Psst, Buster— your gorgeous physique is showing!

College is often compared to Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman, though it might be more accurate to view it as part of one of the most popular film genre of 1920s Hollywood, the campus comedy. Comic performers such as Marion Davies and William Haines also starred in college comedies of their own during the decade. While The Freshman and College are of a similar genre and involve a rather geeky fellow going into the world of sports, the similarities end there, mainly because Lloyd and Keaton’s characters do not share the same motives for doing what they do. Lloyd wants to be the most popular man on campus and goes out of his way to impress his classmates by imitating a character in a movie and then trying out for the football team once he realizes he’s become a laughingstock. Keaton could not care less about the rest of the campus: he just wants to win the heart of one girl by conforming to what she finds desirable.

Spoiler warning—if you do not want, then skip the next three paragraphs!

Much has been made of the strange ending. Traditionally, such a lightweight, gag-based picture would end with Ronald and Mary walking out of the church hand-in-hand, gazing lovingly into each other’s eyes. Instead, College keeps going forward: we cut to scenes of parenthood, old age, and then death. If that wasn’t dark enough, the tone here is quite cynical. When the two are married, they seem to be fully in love, almost fused together in one another’s arms. But after? The scene of the couple with their children does not show a close family unit: the kids play in the background as their parents sit next to one another, not holding hands or even making eye contact, but absorbed in separate activities, oblivious to each other and the kids. Then we see the Ronald and Mary as an old married couple: seated side by side, there is a sense of hostility between them with Ronald disagreeably saying something to his wife while she stares into space.

When we get to the final image of the two gravestones, it is not a symbol of two soulmates together in death: there seems to be something sadder at play, a sense that Ronald wasted his potential and his life by bothering to win the day, that perhaps pursuing athletics did “curse” him after all! It’s almost the opposite of The General, where Keaton’s character saves the day and finds happiness by being who he is: an engineer, not a soldier (well, not until the end, but still—we never see Ronald use his own God-given brains to do much in College the way Johnnie Gray uses his skills as an engineer).

Of course, I’m sure Keaton didn’t intend any deep thinking to be read into this ending. I’m sure the more psychoanalytical film-goer will think this is some commentary on Keaton’s own marriage at the time, which disintegrated more with every year and ended in a nasty divorce in 1932, but I’m reluctant to go that far. Maybe he just wanted to kid the typical Hollywood ending? Or maybe he was expressing his own dissatisfaction with the film? It feels almost satiric, but if that is the case, then it does not gel with the rest of the film, which stays fast to the conventions of its genre without once poking fun at the genre itself.

Nevertheless, College is not nearly as big of a dud as some claim it to be. Yes, it’s not inventive as Keaton’s more inspired work, but even a minor Keaton film such as this has its own kind of low-key charms that make it pleasant viewing. Minor Keaton is still Keaton after all, and that can never be 100 percent bad.

The General (dir. Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton, 1926)

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“[The General contains] the purest distillation of Buster Keaton’s style and persona. If you want to know who he was, as an artist and a man, just watch the ten minutes or so that make up the first chase sequence.”

Imogen Sara Smith, Buster Keaton: The Persistence of Comedy (160)

Whether you’re a seasoned Keaton fan or a newcomer, The General is an odd film. Those who come to the film expecting “the greatest war comedy ever made” often leave puzzled, quick to deride it as “overrated.” When the film debuted in 1926, critics and audiences alike denounced it as Keaton’s “least funny” picture, leaving the movie lukewarm box office returns.

The General’s greatness does not come from the amount of belly laughs it inspires. Truth be told, Keaton’s short films, Seven Chances, and Steamboat Bill Jr. are all significantly funnier. It baffles my mind when people describe The General as a straightforward war comedy, because when looked at closely, the film defies genre classification. Yes, Buster Keaton is a comedian and yes, the film is largely comedic, but it is just as dramatic and suspenseful as it is funny. Yet it’s not a dramedy, at least not in the manner of Chaplin. And while the film deals with the Civil War, I’m not sure if it could be classified as a war film, seeing as The General is completely uninterested in the larger context of and politics behind the war. The hero may be a Confederate, but unlike something such as Gone with the Wind, the Union army is not made out to be treacherous and the Southern cause is not celebrated; the hero Johnnie Gray’s individual ingenuity and bravery is. The genre which may be the best fit for The General could be that of action-adventure, but once again, this disregards the rest of the elements of the story.

"Underplay" is the word of the day when it comes to describing the artistic success of The General.

“Underplay” is the word of the day when it comes to describing the artistic success of The General.

So what makes this film great if it is not “the funniest” movie ever made? The General can be hard for some to appreciate for one reason: the film is understatement incarnate. Its visual beauty is understated, the comedy is understated, the acting is understated, heck, even that famous shot of the Texas crashing into the lake during the climax of the film, hailed as the most expensive shot of the silent era, is underplayed. And yet, it is also awe-inspiring. In The General, Keaton plays with the biggest canvas he was ever given, doing risky stunts on a moving engine, clowning during battle sequences, and creating moments so thrilling because you know it was all real and not in front of a rear-projected image.

When I think of The General, I think of smoking billowing from the mouth of a cannon or the top of an old-fashioned engine, light filtering through the Oregon foliage as Johnnie and his lady love awake in the woods, and Johnnie struggling to chop wood as his engine rushes past the retreating Confederate army. Everything is shot on location and the historical elements coordinated with an aim for accuracy. This quality gives The General a naturalistic feel, one often compared to Matthew Brady’s photographs of the war. There’s no excess in the imagery, no desire to sear your eyes with visual splendor.

There’s also no beating around the bush in terms of story. The General is the most economical of narratives; Keaton introduces us to Johnnie, shows us what and who he cares about, and establishes his problems in the first fifteen minutes. There’s not an ounce of fat upon the plot, no extraneous scenes. Every gag and set piece serves to further the chase, working together like a well-oiled machine.

Stone Face?

Stone Face?

A great deal of the comedy comes from Buster’s reactions. Erroneously dubbed the Great Stone Face, Keaton is the master of expression, communicating emotions and thought through the most minute shifts of muscle or eyebrow in his face. One of my favorite moments is when Johnnie, after sneaking Annabelle in a sack onto a boxcar, sees other soldiers loading heavy-looking boxes and barrels on top of her. He just has this look which encapsulates the phrase, “aw crap,” but without popping his eyes or dropping his jaw.

Johnnie Gray stands apart from Keaton’s other character types, the wealthy milquetoast or the lovesick and unworldly young man: he comes off as more of an adult due to having a job at which he excels and not excessively mooning over Annabelle, maturely (if passively) handling her rejection of him. He does have his clumsy moments and is often plagued by having a sort of tunnel vision in regards to what he’s doing, but in the end, Johnnie is a dashing and resourceful hero: brave, handsome, and intelligent. And despite doing all of these amazing things, Johnnie is still an everyman, both who we are and who we would wish to be. When Keaton goes back to playing lovesick young men trying to make good in College and Steamboat Bill Jr, it feels almost like a step back after the maturity of Johnnie.

That’s another word which describes this film: mature. In many ways, this is like a culmination of Keaton’s particular brand of artistry and attitude toward feature film storytelling. No surrealism or cartoonish physics. No playing for pathos. The comedy and the drama are fused together, inseparable, keeping the audience invested and grounded in this world and making the people inhabiting this story more human and relate-able. Critic Imogen Sara Smith was correct when she asserted that The General is the “most serious comedy ever made.”

As close to perfection as movies get.

As close to perfection as movies get.

I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating: The General was ahead of its time and it’s ahead of ours. Can you see something like this coming out of today’s Hollywood? They’d beg for more explosions, romance, or sidekicks to crowd the movie, destroying the economy and intelligence. I’m sure there will always be people who use the dreaded O-word in regards to this movie, but if it left you cold upon initial viewing, I would urge you to give it another chance and view it with fresh eyes. It is the sort of film which rewards multiple sittings, revealing layers of greatness and beauty with continued exposure. I have seen it several times in the five years since I first saw it and I still notice new things every time I pop the Blu-ray in. No, it’s not a laugh riot; it’s defies all classification and offers viewers something different and fresh, even close to 90 years later. It has come to be my favorite movie, encapsulating all I love about both Buster Keaton and the silent era’s mode of storytelling. Thrilling, funny, and epic, it is not to be missed.