The General (1927), Cops (1922), The Playhouse (1921)
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In the world of silent comedy, there are three names that stand above all the others: Chaplin, Lloyd and Keaton. Because he was the only one to have a career in sound movies that's still remembered, Chaplin is in a class by himself. But, in terms of their silent work, I've always preferred Buster Keaton over the other two. Harold Lloyd always came across as a bit too prissy and intellectual, while Chaplin's 'Little Tramp' had a nasty edge at times -- that character wouldn't be out of place standing in for Jon Stewart on the Grammys. There was just something about Keaton, the 'Great Stone Face,' that was always more sympathetic, and a lot funnier. He was a master at starting small and building, until the tiniest little thing would snowball into a calamity of major proportions. He was the one who once actually staged and filmed a cattle stampede through downtown Los Angeles, after all.
Volume Three of Kino Video's "The Art of Buster Keaton" series presents one of his best-known features, along with two shorts. The DVD itself is utterly lacking in any other special features, but you'll find yourself shuttling back to watch a stunt over again, or even hit pause to gawk at Keaton's early (and flawless) special effects, particularly in The Playhouse.
But the main feature is The General, Keaton's 1926 Civil War action film, which is set up very quickly before it takes off. Keaton plays Johnnie Gray, a railroad engineer in the south, just before the war. He loves two things: his locomotive, dubbed The General, and his gal, Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack). When the war breaks out, Annabelle's brother and father run off to enlist in the Rebel army. "Aren't you going to enlist?" Annabelle asks Johnnie, and so as not to look like a wimp, he runs off to the recruitment center. However, the army doesn't want him as a soldier, because they think he's more valuable in his civilian occupation. They don't bother to tell Johnnie this, though, and his vague explanation for not joining the army doesn't hold water with Annabelle, who dumps him.
This all takes place in a few minutes, and then we jump into the real story, a year later, as Annabelle and her brother are traveling on Johnnie's train to go check on their wounded father. Unbeknownst to any of them, the Union army is planning to highjack the train, then use it to head north, blowing up every bridge they pass. Unfortunately, Annabelle happens to be on the train when it's taken -- and Keaton's simple set-up rolls into motion beautifully. The two things he loves are snatched in a single instant, although he doesn't know Annabelle is on that train until much later.
What follows is a non-stop train chase, with a dozen Union officers trying to outrun lone Buster. (He doesn't start out alone, but forgetting to hitch your engine to the other cars can do that.) The stunt-work, timing and sheer ingenuity of this sequence is incredible, and you can see echoes of it in every chase scene done since. Beyond that, this shtick looks incredibly dangerous, and most (though not all) of it was obviously shot on one or more moving trains, which look damn close to moving right over Buster several times.
But of course, this being Buster Keaton, once is not enough. After the first train chase is over and he discovers Annabelle (along with the Union's plans), he has to rescue her, then we get the first chase in reverse, with an assload of soldiers and two trains pursuing Johnnie, who's now pulling every trick in the book to stop them. If you want to know how it ends, you'll have to see for yourself, but I will say that there's one stunt in particular that is just amazing, involving a real, not model, train and a collapsing bridge. It's an image that was echoed in Bridge on the River Kwai, some thirty years later.
What makes all of this work so well? First, Buster's character. He's an honest guy just trying to do the right thing. Second, Buster's genius. He was brilliant at being able to use the elements in a scene or location to his advantage, in very unexpected ways, making his character appear either very resourceful or extremely lucky, or both. All that, and the film is based on a true story.
Also appearing on the DVD is Cops, a 1922 short film in which Buster, once again just trying to do the right thing, winds up accidentally stealing a rich man's wallet, then using the cash to buy an about-to-move family's furniture from a con man, which he hauls away with a horse and cart he also mistakenly thinks he just bought. When he inadvertently steers his way into the middle of a Policeman's Day parade (how long has it been since they've had one of those?) all hell breaks loose. The premise is entirely Keystone Kops with one important exception: Buster keeps it in the real world. These police are not a pack of bumbling clowns falling over. They're good. Keaton's character just happens to be a little bit better, and he leads them on a merry chase, highlighted by an amazing acrobatic routine on a fifteen-foot ladder balanced precariously on a fence. You'll find it hard to believe that he manages to do what he does at the middle of that ladder. One of the other remarkable things about the film is that it seemingly has a cast of hundreds, all in hot pursuit of our hero.
The absolute highlight of the DVD, though, and the one where you will be using that pause button, is The Playhouse, which Keaton made in 1921, when he was only twenty-six years old. Simply put, it's a special effects extravaganza. In the first half, Keaton plays every single character -- cast, crew, orchestra and audience -- in a small playhouse. And this isn't the cheesy, static "split the screen down the middle" school of doubling actors. I looked at some of his scenes on freeze-frame and, even knowing where the seams should be, I had a hard time finding them. Now, add this: the characters are interacting with each other, with absolutely perfect timing. What's most amazing, and easy to lose track of in the world of digital, are the tools available at the time for doing this sort of thing -- a camera and a mask. I don't know if the optical printer had been invented yet eighty years ago, but even if it had, the meticulousness with which these shots are constructed is stunning.
In the second half of the film, Keaton presents us with Virginia Fox playing twins, and complicates the issue as his character starts seeing double, then seeing double in mirrors. Now, according to other sources (there are no credits on the film) we have one actress playing two parts here, both of them interacting with Keaton at the same time. You figure out how he did it. I can't. In fact, I can't think of any work like this in film until decades later, with David Cronenberg cloning Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers.
Needless to say, everything escalates to disaster, with stunts and gags abounding. Keaton builds a running joke out of two one-armed veterans in the audience with a unique way of applauding, he dances a duet with himself, and also gives us one of the strangest Zouave routines ever filmed. As always, it all comes to a really big finale.
The only flaw in The Playhouse is strictly a product of history -- the performance on stage is a minstrel show, common in the 1920's, long since gone. Luckily, the contrast of the film is such that it's hard to tell that all nine Busters onstage are wearing blackface, but we've already seen the poster in the lobby. At least the film is silent, although it doesn't look like Keaton is portraying any of the nine as Stepin Fetchit. Somehow, I doubt that he would have. The whole concept might be questionable, in light of the fact that the Confederates are the heroes in The General. But again, the Civil War was as near in time in 1926 as the beginning of World War II is to us now, so there were still plenty of participants from both sides around, and we've certainly seen recent American films set in that latter war with sympathetic Japanese or German characters. It's an unfortunate relic, but it's nowhere near the shrieking racism presented by D.W. Griffith.
Still, the collection is worth seeing as a reminder that Keaton was an innovator not only in physical comedy, but also in the technical aspects of filmmaking. He has just as many special effects as George Lucas up his sleeve. The difference? Keaton had to do it the hard way, but he always kept his effects in service of his story, and that is a lesson that can't be repeated often enough in modern Hollywood.
Jon Bastian, a native and resident of Los Angeles, is a playwright and screenwriter.
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