Friday, January 28, 2011

The General

I mentioned a while ago after seeing my first Buster Keaton movie that I liked him more than the more famous Charlie Chaplin. At the time I hadn't seen what I consider better films by Chaplin, but after watching The General I remain convinced that Keaton is more my style. His movies don't have the emotional depth of Chaplin's, but he's just a funnier presence on the screen, and that matters more when I'm watching a silent movie with about a dozen title cards worth of plot. The General is quite a bit longer than Sherlock Jr, and while that means it isn't quite as uniquely brilliant at every single moment, it's still a very funny movie with a decent little story of love and war to boot.

It speaks to Keaton's ability as an entertainer that I was only bothered for a few minutes by the fact that I was being asked to root for a Southern man as he tries to disrupt the Yankee war machine during the Civil War. But you could flip the roles and the movie really wouldn't be very different; the plot consists of Keaton being refused for recruitment based on his usefulness as a train engineer, orchestrating a daring rescue of his beloved girlfriend on the fly after she is accidentally kidnapped by Union troops, and then racing back to try to warn his side of a surprise attack. It's a simple story, and it really just serves to set up the action. I was actually a bit annoyed by some of the drama they tried to insert early on, because it's the sort of simple misunderstanding blown out of proportion that would be easily solved if people just talked to each other. But it's a small speed bump.

And yeah, the meat of the movie is pretty great. Most of the action is centered around a couple of scenes taking place on train tracks, with Keaton chasing after the bad guys or vice versa. There's a lot of creativity in some of the gags, although it's tempered somewhat when many are repeated later with only slightly different methods or tweaks. Part of what I prefer about Keaton over Chaplin is his physical ability, obviously Chaplin has pretty great skill there, but Keaton is just all over the place, jumping from train car to train car and pulling off daring stunts. His work is as much an extremely early example of action as it is comedy. And then there's the face. Plenty of actors can don goofy expressions all day long, but I can't think of anyone who can do so much with a simple blank stare. I don't think anyone's ever gotten more laughter out of a confused, emotionless gaze. Certainly one of my favorite comedies of the silent era.

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