Eighty Years Since The General!
Should The General have been a talkie? Perfection it is, but I can’t help imagining the sound of those trains in pursuit and cannons firing. Would that have brought us too close to the war? Could Keaton’s comedy have survived such levels of realism? Perhaps it’s best silent after all, though noiseless locomotives do seem to move slower. A year’s release later and United Artists might have grafted a music and effects score. That would be fascinating to hear. Modern accompanists can (and have) lent percussive assist beyond mere keyboards. The General’s public domain status places it within reach of anyone willing and able to reproduce the cacophony that accompanied its long-ago production. Kevin Brownlow’s documentary, A Hard Act To Follow, describes an eerie sound made by the train’s whistle after it collapsed with an Oregon bridge that Summer day in 1926. Witnesses to the event recalled it vividly decades later. Combine that with explosions and a pitched battle employing hundreds of extras, then picture several thousand onlookers thoroughly unnerved watching Buster Keaton make his movie. Maybe we need the distance silence gives us where The General is concerned. Seeing and hearing those events of 7/23/26 would have been an entirely different sort of viewing experience, and maybe a not so agreeable one. There was last year an eighty-year commemoration at the Row River site where it all took place. The Register-Guard (Cottage Grove, Oregon’s newspaper) noted a submerged in water rusted rail as last remains from carnage staged so long ago. It would seem all of the viewers who were there that day have died, said the article. Locals who’d reminisced for Brownlow were elderly twenty years back when he interviewed them --- eyewitnesses few in number then have likely gone the way of civil war veterans still marching in parades when the film was initially released. Sobering data, I’d call this, particularly now that The General itself glows brighter and more digitally vivid than ever before.
The French turned out a DVD last year. They’d restored The General yet again, this time to a fare-thee-well. Never has any Keaton silent feature looked so pristine as this. Those Cottage Grove locations glisten like footage shot yesterday. No wonder the place has become a Mecca for Buster-philes. Their historical society has an annual Keaton Day (since 1999), and folks trek to hallowed ground the comedian trod as surely as tourists visit Gettysburg, only this Civil War was captured on film, and for all the world, it looks like the real thing. Buster’s masterpiece has become, with (further) passage of time, the historical document he’d always wanted it to be. You could peddle this as newsreel footage of the Blues and Grays, if only they’d had such back then. Keaton paid Oregon National Guardsmen to play soldier for his movie. Today he could get re-enactors for free. Back then, Civil War buffs didn’t pass weekends suiting up and eating parched corn for authenticity. The reality of the thing was still fresh, at least in their parent’s memories if not theirs. What sane person in 1926 cared to relive a conflict not yet resolved in the minds of many? --- unless maybe they could do it for real and have another crack at an enemy they’d not yet forgiven. Keaton got criticized as it was for utilizing war (specifically death in combat) as inspiration for laughter. Critics expected comedy with a little adventure --- swinging over an occasional waterfall, outrunning boulders, stuff like that. Buster instead gave them adventure with a little comedy, and still cheekier on his part, based the whole of his story on historical incident. It was one thing for comedians to do period --- Harold Lloyd’s contemporaneous The Kid Brother, Raymond Griffith’s uniformed spoofery in Hands Up! --- but Keaton’s goals were loftier, and slapstick clowns full-scaling a then-more recent conflict was not a venture to be encouraged.
Silent era viewers were practiced mind readers. Little was spelled out for them. Players conveyed thoughts as best they could without benefit of spoken word and it was up to us to get the message. Buster Keaton flatters his audience by allowing them to sit and watch him ponder. He knows we’re with him in the crisis and there’s no need to oversell it. No comedian gave us so much credit for insight and intelligence. As raiders steal his train, Buster runs out with soapy hands, alerts the passengers, then pauses a beat to take further stock of the situation before going into action. Is there anything so difficult as acting in motion? --- particularly at the pace Keaton maintains? All the great comics worked with props, but none so massive as those Buster confronts in The General. What assurance it must have taken to play opposite a moving train, staging one set-piece after another that might have been his last should the slightest thing go wrong. That business where Keaton sits on the drive rod (or cross-bar, or whatever they call the things) as it begins to turn has been commented on by other writers, and they’re right in saying that had those wheels spun, even once, he’d have likely been killed. I paused on that moment not so much to reflect upon the risk of death as the likelihood of mutilation. These are train wheels, after all. Think of what they could do with a human body caught between them. Keaton might actually get more laughs were it not for his near supernatural nerve. Viewers in awe of death-defying feats are understandably moved to gasps rather than mirth. Silent Buster’s exertions seem otherworldly --- as if he’d harnessed the CGI life-force generations before it was otherwise discovered. Would we need computer fakery to make Spiderman movies today if Buster were playing that super-hero?
There were previews of The General during November and December of 1926. Existing stills indicate cuts were made, but when? Those audiences in Los Angeles, Glendale, and San Jose saw footage we never would, but what of the opening in Japan that took place December 31, 1926? Has anyone translated reviews to see if that version was different from what we have today? There was a near two-month gap before general release in America. I wonder if stateside viewers saw the same General as the Japanese. Controversy has been ongoing as to its commercial fate. Who can say it lost money short of inspecting a producer’s settlement statement (and I suspect this exists in archive holdings, based on considerable United Artists documents known to have survived)? Negative cost is said to have reached $500,000 … $700,000 … as high as a million. The figure I have is $415,000, and that did come from UA records, as does the domestic rentals number of $486,000. I’d like to know of General sightings after that --- I mean prior to late forties inclusion among circulating library selections from The Museum Of Modern Art. Buster Keaton was known to have caught The General during the early fifties at John Hampton’s Silent Movie Theatre in Hollywood. Veteran stars were habitues at revival showings of their long-ago work, and most paid admissions like everyone else. Indeed, many went unrecognized. The General’s leading lady, Marion Mack, said in an interview that even after she’d announced herself as co-star of the film, they still made her buy a ticket! Critical rediscovery was still in the offing, though James Agee did sing Keaton’s praises in Comedy’s Greatest Era, his LIFE magazine tribute published in December 1949. The real comeback would wait until Raymond Rohauer took the General show on the road in the early sixties, along with an aging, but still game, Buster Keaton (shown together below). The story goes that Rohauer came into possession of The General’s camera negative (yes, but who has it now?) and made new prints. A European tour in the wake of Keaton’s published memoirs was triumphant. U.S. engagements followed, though surely vexing to Rohauer was public domain status The General and two other Keaton UA features attained since a failure to renew copyrights in the mid-fifties. It was thanks to this happy circumstance that most of us were able to see, if not own, The General.
Richard (what’s become of him?) Anobile’s frame enlargement book of The General was published with Rohauer’s blessing, plus his introduction and reminiscences from Marion Mack (there was also suspicious notice of The General’s copyright having been renewed back in 1954 by The Buster Keaton Film Corp.!). Anobile’s book is worth having just for these openers. That was 1975, the same year Walter Kerr presented his seminal appreciation, The Silent Clowns, which included extensive coverage of The General. Kerr’s high-profile media standing guaranteed sales and critical attention. For some time too, Blackhawk Films had been selling The General on 8 and 16mm (their catalog listing shown here) and print quality was of a high standard. Rohauer’s resistance to said competition resulted in weirdly subtitled prints (generated in partnership with Jay Ward), which were exhibited at programs he sanctioned. Marion Mack, having been found after exhaustive Rohauer searches, was along for the ride, and theirs was probably the first money-generating tour back to Cottage Grove locations. Paul Killiam distributed The General along with 35 other silent features in a Festival Of Film Classics TV package made available in March 1970. These played mostly on Public Television and were by far the most respectful presentations The General received during that decade. Orson Welles’ on-camera introduction reflected critical shifts in Keaton’s favor. He was, as we’re now beginning to realize, the greatest of all the clowns in the history of the cinema. I’d venture Welles appreciated not only Keaton’s artistry, but his lifelong modesty, something unspoken rival Chaplin never exhibited. Did Orson agree with others that maybe it was time to take Charlie down a peg or two? That’s surely been the ongoing trend since. Everyone lauds Keaton’s modernity versus Chaplin’s Victorian excesses, but my own University runs of both have consistently tipped audience appreciation scales in Chaplin’s favor. Say what you like about dated sentiment, but I’ve watched students cry at the end of City Lights and The Great Dictator. The fact is both Keaton and Chaplin have so much to offer --- it’s plain foolish to pit them against one another.