Wednesday, September 28, 2011
#207: The General
It was a bit silly that I took a long time to actually get down to watching a Buster Keaton movie. A reverential reference to Keaton in Bollywood that I came across was in Road. Movie when Satish Kaushik's character extols the magic of cinema and takes the example of Buster Keaton's movies being the kinds that moved him during his childhood. It was a glowing tribute and made me want to pick up some of his movies at the earliest but time and destiny kept us apart. And then I saw The General.
Made in 1926, The General was adapted from a novel by William Pettiger and directed by Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman. It plays out like a comedy but in essence is a bit more than that. Set against the backdrop of the civil war, it has a nice romantic angle of Buster Keaton who plays the title character with Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack). Keaton's character Johnnie Gray is an earnest engineer who is one of the few skilled people who know how to operate a rail engine. Consequently, the authorities deny him the chance to enlist in the war. His love interest sees this as a sign of his cowardice and ditches him. The movie presents an answer to the question if The General be able to prove his worth in the war and win his lady back.
Well, if you think you know the answer to that question and think of this as a run-of-the-mill fare, thats exactly what The General is not. Yes there's slapstick, predictability of events and the typical silent comedic timing that makes up for most of the movie. But what's special is the ingenuity, warmth and a very different brand of humor than what's seen in the Chaplin movies. You also see why some people say that Buster Keaton is better than Chaplin. Because Keaton isn't wearing oversized pants and he isn't trying to make us laugh every single moment like Chaplin's tramp. Keaton works by building up a very human story and making us laugh at his success and his misery alike. His simplicity is highly believable and his character endearing. The movie is about him and he carries it well single-handedly.
I could watch The General again and again for just those two scenes of him sitting on the wheels of his rail engine and the final ending scene. Two beautiful shots that more than made up for the time I put in. And I can assure you will be more than worth your time too.