Pop Culture at its Best

Toronto Silent Film Festival 2013: ‘The General’ Showcases Buster Keaton’s Inimitable Feats of Glaring-Do

3-4The Railrodder
Directed & Written by Gerald Potterton
Canada, 1965

The General
Directed by Clyde Bruckman & Buster Keaton
Written by Clyde Bruckman & Buster Keaton
USA, 1926

TSFF festivities came to a comedic crescendo at the Revue Cinema on Tuesday night with a pair of locomotive laugh-getters starring “The Great Stone Face”, Buster Keaton. First on the program was a throwback silent short made by the National Film Board of Canada in 1965, just a year before the comedian’s death. The film was introduced by International Buster Keaton Society “Porkpie” Scholarship recipient R. Edwin Barnett, whose current research project aims to reintegrate The Railrodder into the main body of Keaton criticism (most books/essays on the actor/auteur simply name-check the movie as one of his “industrial” films during the rush to ring down the curtain on Keaton’s career). After seeing the film, Barnett’s point seems manifest. The Railrodder may not be a great film, nor does it break any new ground for Keaton, but it does show him working at a very high level of technical proficiency, and demonstrates that the star had lost none of his deadpan comedic aplomb during the 39 years between The General and his big trip across the vast Canadian Wilderness (it should be noted that the short is an industrial film, made to promote the scenic splendors of the CN rail system – it’s just an unusually important one).

Of course, the second item on the evening’s double bill is the one that everyone came to see, and judging by the standing ovation received by Australian quartet Viola Dana after the final credits rolled, no one went home disappointed by the band’s rousing performance, which only increased the kinetic appeal of the dynamic images barreling across the screen. In its North American premiere, this viola-drum-banjo-cello score beautifully captured so many of the disparate elements that make The General one of the most celebrated films of the 1920s. The musical players worked together brilliantly to convey the unstoppable energy of well-stoked locomotives rumbling back and forth across the Civil War-ravaged land, in a hilarious, high-stakes game of occasionally inept, but always enthusiastic, spy-vs-spy. Viola Dana also captured the pathos that lies beneath the practically non-stop action, using folk melodies of the mid-19th century to peer into the heart and mind of Keaton’s heartsick but dedicated engineer.

The General is, above all, the preeminent showcase for Keaton’s special brand of frenzied-yet-low-key comedic athleticism. Through an endless succession of frankly astonishing train-and-track-bound feats of glaring-do, the star creates a mounting sense of cognitive dissonance that somehow keeps alive both the absurdity and the very real perils of the situations encountered by Johnnie Gray and his beloved Annabelle Lee (played by the wonderfully game Marion Mack). No laugh in the The General is unalloyed by fear, and that is the ultimate source of its unique fascination. For Keaton’s masterpiece isn’t just a typical slapstick comedy, nor even a typical “service comedy” – it is, perhaps above and beyond everything else, a war film. As one of this reviewer’s fellow audience members noted last night, a lot of people actually die in this film – and their deaths have weight (because grim-visaged Keaton makes us feel that he could easily join them at any moment, no matter how nimbly he navigates the ever-chugging terrain).

Another important point to note is that, like many early Hollywood Civil War protagonists, Johnnie Gray is a Southerner (despite the fact that the story upon which the narrative is based, William Pittenger’s The Great Locomotive Chase, is told from the perspective of the Northern adventurers whose plot is thwarted by Keaton’s character). The reasons for this inversion – and Hollywood’s oddly pro-Southern trend during the pre-World War Two era – are complex and of great interest to the cultural historian. Studios were reluctant to present triumphalist Northern accounts of the Civil War, for fear of alienating Southern audiences (which still included many people who remembered the “War of Northern Aggression” first hand). Moreover, the romantic qualities of the South’s “Lost Cause” captured the imaginations of many artists (from outright bigots like D.W. Griffith to progressives like David O. Selznick). Naturally, upon confronting all of these Confederate-flag waving scenes, the modern viewer is moved to ask: “where does slavery fit into this equation?” But one of the most important cultural insights to be gleaned from films like The General is that, as late as 1926, many well-meaning artists like Buster Keaton were unable to distinguish Confederate patriotism from any other type of politically motivating force. It is entirely possible that future critics will likewise shake their heads at some of Hollywood’s current pro-war products.

Sound on Sight is deeply gratified to have been given the opportunity to cover this wonderful event – and this reviewer looks forward to repeating the experience next year. Readers are highly encouraged to bookmark the Toronto Silent Film Festival in order to stay abreast of all future developments!

4 Comments
  1. The Vern says

    Great piece on Keaton, but I was surprised to find out that many movies being released during that era were pro confederate. I would love it if theatres near me played silent movies with a live orchestra

    1. David Fiore says

      Thanks Vern! I do indeed consider myself fortunate to be back in a city that provides access to so many cinematic delights.

      The Confederate thing is disturbing but true — BIRTH OF A NATION, GONE WITH THE WIND,THE GENERAL, VIRBINIA CITY, I’m sure I could think of many others if I took a few minutes to ponder it… of course, you have to remember that these films were made during a time when even the majority of academic historians were downplaying the importance of emancipation and describing the Civil War as a “tragic blunder” in American history…

  2. Joe says

    Very interesting piece on Keaton. Although I find The General a bit heavy-handed compared with some lighter features like Our Hospitality and Sherlock Jr., it’s easy to see why the former, with its backdrop of war and politicizing message, is critically deemed his masterpiece. I particularly like this point: “But one of the most important cultural insight to be gleaned from films like The General is that, as late as 1926, many well-meaning artists like Buster Keaton were unable to distinguish Confederate patriotism from any other type of politically motivating force. It is entirely possible that future critics will likewise shake their heads at some of Hollywood’s current pro-war products.”

    Well said. The way-overtouted Hurt Locker comes to mind. I hated that movie.

    1. David Fiore says

      Thanks for reading and commenting Joe!

      I haven’t seen Our Hospitality or Sherlock Jr in quite a while, but I really should revisit them — your point is very well taken.

      Similarly, re: Hurt Locker, I definitely understand your perspective, but I’m of the opinion that Bigelow’s film aims to pathologize militarism/patriotism (without making any overt statements to that effect), and thus, for me, it falls into an entirely different category from works like THE GENERAL, which make no attempt to interrogate these concepts.

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