Buster Keaton

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Gerald Mast

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[Only] Buster Keaton could rival Chaplin in his insight into human relationships, into the conflict between the individual man and the immense social machinery that surrounds him; only Keaton could rival Chaplin in making his insight both funny and serious at the same time. On the one hand, the Keaton canon as a whole is thinner, less consistent than the Chaplin canon; the character he fashioned—with his deadpan, blank reaction to the chaos that inevitably and inadvertently blooms around him—lacks the range, the compassionate yearnings, the pitiable disappointments of Chaplin's tramp. On the other hand, Keaton made a single film, The General, that is possibly more even, more unified, and more complex in both conception and execution than any individual Chaplin film. (p. 152)

Chaplin and Keaton are the two poles of silent comics. Chaplin's great strength is his development of character and the exhausting of a particular comic and social situation; Keaton's strength is the tightness of his narrative structures and his contrast between the numbers one and infinity. Chaplin is sentimental; his gentle, smiling women become idols to be revered. Keaton is not sentimental; he stuffs his females into bags and hauls them around like sacks of potatoes; he satirizes their finicky incompetence and even raises his fist to the silly lady in The General who feeds their racing locomotive only the teensiest shavings of wood. It was especially appropriate and touching to see the two opposites, Chaplin and Keaton, united in Limelight (1952), both playing great clowns who were losing their audiences and their touch. (p. 153)

The great question The General poses in the course of its narrative is how to perform heroic action in a universe that is not heroic. Buster, with his typical dead-pan expression, merely tries to go about his business while the world around him goes mad. A metaphor for the feeling of the whole film is the shot in which Buster is so busy chopping wood to feed his engine that he fails to notice that the train is racing past row after row of blue uniforms marching in the opposite direction. Johnny Gray has inadvertently propelled himself behind the enemy's lines. Johnny Gray simply wants to run his train; unfortunately, the Union Army wants to steal the train and use it to destroy his fellow Confederates. In the course of merely trying to save the train, Johnny rescues his lady love and accidentally wins a terrific victory for the South.

That heroism occurs as an accident in The General is at the center of its moral thrust. It is an accident that the cannon, aimed squarely at Johnny, does not go off until the train rounds a curve, discharging its huge ball at the enemy instead of at the protagonist. It is an accident that Buster's train comes to a rail switch just in time to detour the pursuing Union train…. [Heroism] and successful military strategy are accidental in The General…. Buster's character exposes the folly of the accidents of heroism. For how less heroic, how less aspiring, less grand can a man be than little Buster? Buster merely uses his shrewd common sense against impossible odds, and he is lucky to get away with it. (pp. 156-57)

Such antiheroism is common to all the Keaton films; he is always the sensible little guy who inadvertently runs up against senseless objects that dwarf him. The thing that distinguishes The General is that the senseless object, the huge infernal machine of this film, is war. Men themselves have been transformed into a machine (an army), and the business of...

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this machine is murder and destruction. This antiheroic comic epic must necessarily become an antiwar story, too, for the military heroismThe General consistently debunks is the Circe that turns men into murdering and destructive swine. Buster never is hypnotized, and his film makes sure we keep our eyes open, too. (pp. 158-59)

The film is as shrewd, as caustic, as hard-edged as Johnny Gray himself. His girl, a typical figure of sentiment and romance …, is degraded into an incompetent and feeble representative of romantic notions; Johnny Gray ultimately must fight her as well as the pursuing army. There is no place in the world of The General for sentiment, for the same reason that there is no place for heroism. Romance and heroism are twins, and The General wages war on both. Unlike the Chaplin films, there are no flowers, no roses, in The General. As soon as you admit a rose, you must also admit a gun to fight for it.

True, the character Buster plays, Johnny Gray, is a southerner, a seemingly romantic choice. But Buster chose to play a rebel because the South lost the war, because the South was romantically blind about fighting the war, and because the South, like Buster, was the little-guy underdog. Though Johnny plays a southerner, the film is impartial; ultimately Johnny must sneak his train (even its name is a military one) past both the Union and the Confederate lines. Despite the film's comic conclusion and inventive gags, The General, with its mixture of burlesque and grimness (many men die in this film), is the spiritual ancestor of that recent mixture of laughs and war horrors, [Kubrick's] Doctor Strangelove. (p. 160)

Gerald Mast, "Movie Czars and Movie Stars," in his A Short History of the Movies (© 1971; reprinted by permission of the publisher, The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc.), Bobbs-Merrill—Pegasus, 1971, pp. 120-60.∗


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