This is an entry in "The Big Ones," a series covering 32 classic films for the first time on The Dancing Image. There are spoilers.
I've heard that The General was essentially remade, straight, as a wartime chase film (I think it was a Disney production, maybe The Great Locomotive Chase). Or rather that the original historical incident - a spy (Northern in reality, Southern in the film) seizes or reclaims an engine, piloting it through enemy territory - was adapted once again. This is not the only time a Keaton film was reincarnated (Seven Chances was remade with Chris O'Donnell as The Bachelor); while it would seem bizarre to remake a Chaplin film, it makes sense for Keaton to see this treatment. Why? He's certainly as inimitable as Chaplin, perhaps more so - while Chaplin's comic inventions can be copied by mimics, Keaton's stunts should not be attempted by the weak-hearted, legally sane, or uninsured.
The obvious answer (as indicated by the Disney film which circumvented The General and went back to the source) is that, well, many of the best Keaton films actually had plots - with a catchy angle. Or as I put it in my review of Seven Chances a few years ago: "Almost every picture is not only a vehicle for his unique talents, but a clever high concept idea as well." This is true - but there are other qualities that sets Keaton films apart from other comedies of the time, and makes them appear to be about more than just him: ambition, scale, and style. I promise this will be my last self-quote, but I don't want to pretend I'm not repeating myself here: in celebrating Our Hospitality, I wrote, "he could easily have fashioned romantic epics of American history, because he has the pictorial, spatial sense of a John Ford or D.W. Griffith." No film better bares out those comparisons, especially the latter, than his masterpiece, The General.
He certainly didn't skimp on resources. The most expensive of Keaton's features, it also included the costliest shot in silent cinema: a train recklessly plowing onto a burning bridge, which collapses in a smoking heap in the river below. Yet what's so important is that we remember not just this breathtaking shot, but the hilarious moment that follows: the officer who ordered the engine forward now stares after it in mortified disbelief. No histrionic displays, no mugging for the camera, just a hilariously crestfallen expression that silently says, "Oh shit." And that's the key to Keaton's art - he's not afraid to go for broke, incorporating effects and stunts that today would be utilized only for blockbuster action films, in which the snarky humor is window dressing for the explosions. But he uses these impressive set pieces as foundations for the humor - he doesn't parody historical epics, he makes them and then adds the comedy on top.
Actually, the action and the comedy are even more integrated than that - we laugh, cheer, and sweat all at the same time; the different components of our reaction to The General are inseparable. The film's visual gags double as grand cinematic gestures. And it's worth noting that the visual tone is as deadpan as Keaton's expression. The cinematography is often gorgeously stirring - sundappled battlefields dotted with plumes of smoke, rain falling on a wooded glen in the moonlight - and the other actors seldom play for comedy: the Northerners are hapless and Keaton's girlfriend is helpless, but while they're amusing we could envision similar characterizations in a dramatic movie. Two elements remind us we're watching a comedy, and cue us to laugh: the wit of the timing, expressed through intricate composition and cutting, and of course Keaton himself.
Of course, there are many moments that are comedic in their very conception: Keaton waiting at the door of his beloved, grooming himself only to find out she's behind him; the melancholy absorption with which he sits on wheel of the train even after it starts moving; the absurdly oversized soldier garb, hanging like a sack from our hero's torso; the bagged girlfriend buried by extra luggage in the freight cart; that reckless sword continually coming out of its hilt as the determined engineer attempts to strike a heroic pose; and finally, Keaton receiving his new uniform with resigned despair (thinking that he is being returned to civilian clothes, only to discover he's been promoted). Yet consider how much of the movie could be played for drama, and almost is: indeed, in many sequences every shot is straightforward, with only a gesture or expression of Keaton's, or a cut or framing butting one aspect up against another, giving us the slightest of winks.
Take, for example, the film's conclusion. Having proven his heroism, the now-dashing young officer leans in to kiss his lady. Yet he is continually interrupted by soldiers walking by, whose salutes he must return. Finally, when it seems he can finally make love in peace, a camp full of tents opens its flaps and soldier after soldier marches by. A frustrated Keaton simply closes his eyes, smooches away and salutes absentmindedly at the same time. The situation is funny but each building block is relatively "straight": that shot of all the tents opening contains nothing within it that is inherently amusing. The soldiers are not grinning, the flaps are not flung ostentatiously, there's no camera movement to mimic Keaton's incredulous disbelief. As in Kuleshov's experiments, it is only the juxtaposition of this shot with Keaton's reaction (and its positioning after what came before) which makes us laugh.
That's true everywhere, from the intricate workings of the train itself, to the realistic-looking soldiers (whose deaths still manage to be funny), to that infamous train wreck and the shocked reactions of the commander. Incidentally, a Buster Keaton website informs us that this reaction was not feigned - apparently the actors did not know what was going to happen to the train (if this is true, the crew must have been rolling two cameras simultaneously). The site also tell us that "Keaton's crew invented gags, and Keaton rejected them all, saying the film would not be a gag picture, but a straight story. 'No shortcuts,' Keaton said, 'It's got to be so authentic it hurts.'" The art of his "authentic" comedies, his "straight" gag pictures may inspire remakes, but cannot be recaptured. Instead, it'll leave us like that astonished officer, wondering what the hell we just saw, although unlike him we'll be grinning ear to ear.
The General appears at 5:40 in "Dance of the Silents", a chapter in my video series "32 Days of Movies."