How. How. How have I gone this long, lived 26 and a half years, without ever seeing a Buster Keaton film? Shame shame shame. If his 1927 masterpiece The General is any indication (and by all accounts it seems to be), I better hop on this train and never get off unless it's to heave obstacles out of the way, change track directions or save myself from mortal danger ... and even after all that, I'd better get back on.
Company: this film was a part of my Netflix Streaming In My Bed Film Fest last night, and it was amazing -- but you know I'll watch it again in a heartbeat with a crowd.
Cuisine: a glass of red wine. A perfect night.
So the story goes: it's 1861 in Marietta, Georgia, and Johnnie Gray (the singular Mr. Keaton) is an engineer for the Western & Atlantic Railroad who has two loves: his engine and his girl (Marion Mack). Fort Sumter is attacked and the Civil War has begun, and every man in town heads to the recruitment office to enlist, but our hero in the pork pie hat is too valuable to the South as an engineer, so they won't take him. Unluckily for our patriot, his beloved doesn't believe this misfortune, assuming he's a coward, and won't speak to him again until he's in uniform. Woah. Girl knows what she wants.
Hopeless, Johnnie sits down on the side rods of his beloved engine, the General of the title, and heaves a sigh as, in the first of many glorious moments to come, the train begins to move with him on it (at about 00:43 in this clip). It's one of those moments of visual innovation and joy in the movies that just makes your heart swell. This stunt, though seemingly simple, was apparently extremely dangerous, and it took a lot of elbowing and cajoling for the real engineer of the train to agree to it.
The plot follows Johnnie's accidental joining of the armed forces after his beloved engine is train-napped (?) by Union spies travelling north to Chattanooga, with plans to destroy communications and railroad tracks along the way. What a bunch of assholes. Don't take what doesn't belong to you. This would be bad enough on its own, but Johnnie's beloved is on board! He runs after the train, first chasing it on foot, then on handcar, then on boneshaker bicycle (hilarious), and then on another train engine, parked at the next station where he enlists several soldiers to help him stop the spies -- but when he leaves the station, the car carrying the volunteers is not attached, and by the time Johnnie notices, it's too late to turn back.
What follows is cinematic splendor: a low-speed train chase where obstacle after obstacle is presented and stunt after stunt Johnnie triumphs, knowingly or, in some cases, unknowingly. As pictured above, he reacts to a renegade train car in front of him having miraculously disappeared (in truth by the evil but accidentally good machinations of the spies ahead) by the most amazing slow-blink I have ever witnessed. The story apparently goes that when he was performing as a child with his parents, his father would fling him all over the stage, and if he got up from the stunt and smiled, he wouldn't get as big a laugh as he would if he stayed stone-faced. The Great Stone-Face he was, perfecting "deadpan" and influencing future generations of deadpan-lookers.
Roger Ebert writes extensively in his Great Movies series about the comedy of Buster Keaton, including "the Keaton Curve," in which Keaton's characters try to get themselves out of trouble only to wind up back in it by trying. Love it. This happens at one point with a cannon that follows Johnnie: genius! It's a great article -- I should really try to find more reading about this.
So anyway, Johnnie rescues his beloved and attempts to steal his train back, which, naturally, will require his beloved to be shoved into a sack. They get the train back by hilariously knocking out some guards and zoom back south in order to warn their allies of the oncoming attack.
In a parallel chase sequence, our heroes are now the ones being chased, using some similar tricks used on them to deter the spies. You'd think a feature-length film that is comprised of almost nothing but train chases would get tiresome, but it's a credit to the economy and innovation of Keaton's physical comedy that our attention is always on the train with them.
Having successfully warned his fellow Southerners of the Union's approach, the forces come back to the Rock River Bridge, which Johnnie has set on fire, to do battle with the North. Johnnie is still not enlisted but picks up a sword to ready himself for battle, only to trip over it in his first steps as a soldier. Give the guy a break, he's only 5'6".
The battle finds Johnnie unwittingly saving the day once again -- but it's too hilarious to recount. In fact, why try to describe any of it when it can't really be put into words? Go find it on instant Netflix -- even the MIDI-sounding score can't distract from Keaton's genius.
All things end happily, as they tend to do in these movies. At the end of the last entry, anticipating this film, I wondered why Charlie Chaplin's filmography is honored with three films on this list (Modern Times, The Gold Rush and City Lights) while Keaton only gets one. In reading about them, it sounds like one of the primary differences in their comedy styles was that Chaplin wanted to be liked and Keaton didn't really care, or was too proud to ask to be liked. We like them both, but there's a lovability factor with Chaplin, and he was more prolific. Plus, his films tended to be enhanced by his satirical commentary on society, while Keaton's maybe didn't quite as much. The focus here is not the story but the splendor of his physical feats. I don't know if I could say I prefer one over the other -- but it'd be interesting to compare both their styles.
Wow. I haven't been this blissful watching a film on this list since The Best Years of Our Lives. Add this to my faves. And it's my 100th blog entry! Woopee!
Next up: Mrs. Robinson tries to seduce The Graduate.