by Bosley Crowther
As the last of the great silent comics to command a position in this book, Buster Keaton is perhaps the most elusive and therefore the least understood. Where Chaplin clearly expresses the poignancy of the “little man” valiantly seeking recognition and affection in a coldhearted world and Lloyd unmistakably mimics the go-getting all-American boy, Keaton presents us with a character just this side of a human question mark, a primly detached little stoic contending endlessly with nitwit people and anarchistic machines.
To the eye of the first-time beholder, he may appear an uninteresting sort, monotonous in his getup and stiff in his attitude. With grave eyes peering coolly out of a solemn, deadpan face which in its lean and highcheeked structure fits with his underslung, starchly clothed frame he looks like a country undertaker or a small-time evangelist pondering the dismal possibilities of the next task he has to perform.
Yet this surface solemnity of Keaton is precisely the quality that makes his hidden nature so surprising and his reactions so droll. It soon becomes clear that his appearance is but a thin and foolish facade for a fiercely energetic individual with the pride of a potentate, the ingenuity of a wizard and the courage and persistence of a lion.
There has been a disposition among critics to put Keaton down as cold, an odd duck without emotions, a “deadpan automaton.” He has been sometimes heedlessly figured as just a fast, frantic foil to machines, a mobile cigar-store Indian animated by quick impulses and instant springs. This is as false and unperceptive as it would be to say that Lloyd is a supergymnastic cutup without a nerve in his body or a brain in his head.
It is quite true that Keaton’s fellow politely eschews sentiment. He never makes a play for pity in the manner of Chaplin’s Little Tramp. Neither does he beg for affection in the spaniel-eyed way of Lloyd, nor does he ooze wistfulness as does Harry Langdon, who also dwelled behind a fixed facade.
Keaton’s is a dignified skeptic who is careful and cautious toward the world because he isn’t quite sure how it will treat him with all its crazy, illogical people and its mischievous machines. Being supremely literalminded, morally righteous and intense, he coolly distrusts all animate creatures and their wayward peculiarities. That’s why he holds aloof from others, keeps his emotions in reserve, maintains a stoic appearance, never wears his heart on his sleeve. But to say that he is lacking in emotion or is without personal winsomeness and warmth is to miss entirely the distinction and subtlety of his character. For it is just because he does have spirit, ambition, self-confidence and pride, a will to exercise his independence, that he acts with such swift precisiveness and reveals so much ire and impatience when things gang aft a-gley.
Keaton came by this character with the same cooperation of chance that assisted his peers in the development of the characters they portrayed. He picked up the idiosyncrasy of a deadpan countenance when he worked as a child with his parents in a vaudeville acrobatic act and was trained by his prescient father to keep a perpetually straight face. He is said to have been given the name of Buster by Harry Houdini, the famed contortionist, who was amazed by his ability to do hard stage falls without displaying so much as a wince. The habit acquired in childhood was propitiously maintained when he went into films in 1918 as an appropriately incongruous foil for the then full-blown Fatty Arbuckle and caught countless pies in that frozen face. With Fatty, he also perfected his essential acrobatic skill and learned the tricks of split-second timing that was so key to the comedians in silent films.
In the early 1920’s, Keaton went on his own and began making feature-length pictures. Our Hospitality was a freakishly costumed chase film, turned out in 1923. The following year he made Sherlock Jr. and The Navigator, two memorable comedies which considerably extended his horizon and his popularity. The latter is sometimes considered his most sophisticated film, being an almost surrealistic study of Buster alone with a girl on a ship. But, to my way of thinking, The General, made in 1927, best combines the subtle character of Keaton with material that is perfect for his style.
The story, written by Al Boasberg and Charles Smith, with the customary aid of Keaton himself and all the wags he kept around him to dream up gags and play practical jokes, was based on an actual incident that occurred during the American Civil War: the hijacking of a Confederate supply train by Union saboteurs. Keaton and his people turned this incident into a perfect blueprint for a chase comedy, with Keaton as Johnny Gray, the outraged engineer of the stolen train who is inspired by his love for his engine—an old-time funnel-stack locomotive called the General—to go after it and return it home.
But passionate devotion to his engine, which is stated at the start of the film with shots of Johnny patting the locomotive lovingly, is not his only reason for going after the train and exposing himself to painful hardships and considerable military peril. He wants to be a hero and he wants to impress a girl. These are urges that burn fiercely in his seemingly saturnine soul. And to fail to appreciate fully how dominant these urges are in motivating the little engineer to do the things he does—to penetrate the lines of the enemy, to resteal his intractable train, to drive it back against many dire obstructions and to be a hero in a military skirmish along the way—is to be misled by the notion that Keaton is just a spry automaton.
His Johnny is a valiant little fellow, an all too human being, and Keaton states it crisply and clearly in the first reel of the film. Rebuffed by his girl for being a slacker, for not joining the Confederate Army and going to war, Johnny tries to enlist and is turned down (he doesn’t know it, but a leading citizen has told the recruiting officer he is more useful where he is). Thus denounced and humiliated, the little engineer is full of normal woe (and his solemn face piteously reveals it) when the train is suddenly stolen, with his girl accidentally aboard.
The galvanic reaction of Keaton when he sees his beloved engine and a couple of cars start off down the tracks is the first startling revelation of the electrically responsive mind and the split-second muscular reflexes of this deceptively solemn little man. He is off like a shot, racing swiftly on foot after the vanishing train, one arm waving magisterially forward, beckoning other men around the station to follow him, but not looking back for a second, so obsessed with pursuit is he. The springiness of his running movement, contrasted with a glimpse of his stoic face, transmits at once the distinction of this human paradox.
The next significant revelation comes as Buster, seeing he is losing in the race, stops and swings about to rally with his followers. Lo, no one is there! The cohorts he thought were with him have blandly let him go it alone.
Now, what would an ordinary person do in a fix such as this? He would meekly return to the station, resigned to his discomfiture and loss. Not Buster. He is undaunted. He spots a handy handcar, wrestles it onto the tracks, leaps aboard and starts pumping wildly. He gets it going so fast it jumps the tracks and tosses him into the bushes, as it plunges down an embankment and burns. He is on his feet in a jiffy, looks about hopefully, spots an old-fashioned high-wheel bicycle at a nearby house and jumps on that. His belief in himself is so compelling and his spontaneity is so intense that it doesn’t occur to him how incongruous it is to use a bicycle to try to catch a train.
In these initial happenings, the pattern of the picture is laid down, a succession of complications in which Buster attempts to mobilize whatever means or devices he can put his hands on to conquer a cantankerous machine. It is almost as though the General is being difficult on its own, conspiring with its larcenous human attachments to cause its master embarrassment.
The contention of mechanisms, operated by frenetic human beings, is brought to a clear confrontation as Buster rides up to another settlement where a Confederate troop train is standing on a siding, with soldiers loafing about. Shouting and waving to the soldiers to get aboard the train, Buster leaps into the cab of the locomotive (the Texas is the name of this iron horse), pulls the throttle with professional precision and is off and chugging down the tracks. Only now does he turn around to look back and see—yes, it’s happened again! The cars containing the soldiers are not connected. There is only the engine, the tender, one flatcar, and him. When Buster discovers this omission, not a trace of distraction clouds his face. There is just a flicker of amazement in his eyes. And this is a dandy demonstration of how these optical windows always give a delightfully droll delineation of what’s going on in his mind.
Keaton was an absolute master of the double take, the trick of delaying a reaction for just a moment (or maybe two or three) to heighten the effect of the humor of a shock message hitting the brain. But he was able to do it entirely with his eyes. A prime example of this virtuosity, perhaps the best in all his films, comes later in the picture when he has got behind the enemy lines and has stumbled into army headquarters and into the officers’ council room. He is trapped beneath the council table when the officers come in to make plans. Fortunately he is hidden by a low-hanging tablecloth. There is a small hole in the cloth, however, and through this he can see what’s going on. Under the table with him, we watch him peeking out.
Then a shocking thing happens. Into the room, his girl is brought, a captive of the Union Army, presumably held as a spy. Buster’s reaction to this (which is shown in an outside shot) is bound to be intense. It is the sort of surprise that should make him almost fall out into the room. And how are we shown this reaction? With a head-on close-up shot of Buster’s one eye peering starkly through that hole in the tablecloth! Just one big eye, framed by the fabric, that stares incredulously for a beat or two, then blinks and stares again, this time with horror—that is all we see. Yet with this concise pictorial statement we are made to envision Buster’s face and his whole startled, rigid perturbation. It is a brilliant stroke.
Another trait of Keaton’s little stoic is his bland ingenuousness, which causes him to do sometimes clumsy and shockingly perilous things. For instance, after his discovery that he is alone on the pursuing train, the one he has picked up on the siding, he notes a stumpy howitzer sitting on the flatcar. Immediately this gives him an idea. He will load it and try to fire a broadside to hit the train ahead. But knowing nothing about ordnance, even less than the audience does, he first loads the howitzer with a pinch of gunpowder and a monster cannonball. Of course, the discharge is a fizzle. The howitzer gives a little puff and lobs the cannonball harmlessly into the engine cab.
Buster regards it coolly. He has evidently made a slight mistake. All right, he will rectify the error by going to the other extreme. He jams the whole keg of gunpowder down the muzzle and plunks in two cannonballs. This time he is seeing to it that this perverse little monster works! But as he lights the fuse, the vibration of the rattling flatcar causes the muzzle of the howitzer to lower. Now it points directly into the engine cab.
Naturally, the audience shudders. It knows the engine is going to be blown to smithereens and Buster, standing there so innocently, is going to be piled up in a terminal wreck. And then there comes a sudden shift of fortune of the sort that regularly occurs to save Buster from disaster. The engine starts around a curve and swings out of the line of fire just as the howitzer thunderously explodes. The two cannonballs burst from the muzzle, whoosh past the engine cab and zoom straight ahead to smash heroically close to the fleeing train a half mile up the track! Buster blinks with bland satisfaction and gives the howitzer an appreciative pat.
Buster’s troubles are always compounded by the presence of the girl, who turns out to be more of a nuisance than a figure of sweet romance. After he has rescued her from the enemy, he tries to carry her, as a proper romantic hero should. But she is much too heavy. He soon has to put her down. While he is sitting on a log, limply resting, she comes up behind him and scares him half to death. Then she wanders away and gets caught in a bear trap. Trying to extricate her, he gets caught.
Some girl! She is constantly doing the wrong thing and getting in the way. Heading home in the restolen General, Buster finds they are short of wood. While he is breaking up things to feed the fire, he notes the silly girl is daintily tidying the cab by picking up small pieces of wood and tossing them out. In utter exasperation, he frankly throttles her. No wonder he is unmoved a few shots later when she is drenched by the overhanging pipe of a water tower.
But the final blow of the girl’s stupidity comes when Buster, who has learned that the pursuing enemy is planning to focus a sneak attack upon the Confederates at the Rock River Bridge, runs his engine across the bridge and then gets down and goes back to pile up kindling and set it afire. What should happen but the girl lights the kindling with Buster on the wrong side! He has to dive off the bridge into the river and save himself as best he can.
However, in the succeeding battle, by dint of abundant zeal and despite some extravagant fumbles such as tripping over a sword and running up onto the back of a soldier which he thinks is a rock from which he can wave the flag, Buster manages to come out a hero. He is rewarded with the hand of the stupid girl and the uniform of a lieutenant, which is much too large for him. Thus, Keaton ends this exposition on a winsome and wistful note. Maybe romance and heroism aren’t worth the effort, after all.
As usual, the cast in The General plays to Keaton with selfless loyalty. Marion Mack is magnificently un-intelligent and sexually vapid as the girl. And the rest, in small roles, strut and sputter, make trouble or get in the way, precisely as intended, like slightly nicked cogs in a machine.
This picture was vastly successful, as were all of Keaton’s silent films, but he rapidly lost his magnetism, though not his recognition and fame, when sound came in. Teamed with Jimmy Durante, Wallace Beery and others in talkie comedies, he was denied opportunity to project his essence amid so much loquacity.
He virtually disappeared from pictures for many dreary years. Then in 1957 a screen biography, The Buster Keaton Story, was made. Donald O’Connor played the title role. Keaton was used as technical adviser. Not even his shadow appeared.
Source: Bosley Crowther, The Great Films. Fifty Years Of Motion Pictures (1967)