The release of a great new score for the 1927 silent film The General – by UK trio Haiku Salut, reviewed here – prompted a turn to a 2004 screening of a fresh print and soundtrack.
Not surprisingly for Sydneysiders of a certain age, the film screened at the now-lost, much lamented Valhalla. More surprisingly, perhaps, the film’s subtle emotional elements play as beautifully as the set-piece gems and physical comedy.
Written and directed by Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman
G, Valhalla, Glebe
Buster Keaton was no mere clown, though physical comedy and outrageous stunts peppered his films. Nor was he a blank-faced, black and white imperturbable around whom buildings would fall and worlds collapse without eliciting a response, though that is how he is mostly remembered.
What his characters had was dignity.
They were men who took themselves seriously, but never so much that they assumed ill fortune was for lesser beings. When things go wrong for a Keaton character he is not outraged but something that’s a little closer to resigned in that it’s another tribulation which will be dealt with.
They were men who held themselves in but never so far as to shut down any sign of emotion. Those kohl-ringed eyes spoke better than any dialogue card.
In the marvellously exciting and, for its time, spectacular The General, (from 1927, restored now with a fresh score) Keaton is railway engineer/driver Johnny Gray who has “two loves in his life”, the steam engine named General and the beautiful Annabelle Lee.
Having returned from a trip on the former he visits the latter, sober-suited and slightly awkward but not foolish, even as he walks down the road with two urchins and, unknown to him, Annabelle behind him mimicking his moves. Later, as he sits in the Lee’s drawing room out of place and wanting to say more there’s respect and love flitting across his long face.
But circumstances are about to overtake Gray as the American Civil War begins and everyone around him enlists. Despite his best efforts (including some physical work which you imagine a young Danny Kaye was watching avidly) Gray is rejected because he is considered more valuable to the South’s cause as an engineer.
Sadly he doesn’t know this and more devastatingly neither does Annabelle who tells him she doesn’t want to see him again until he is in uniform. It is this news which precedes one of Keaton’s most famous moments as he sits on one of the General’s wheel rods going up and down as the train moves but so engrossed in his misfortune that he doesn’t notice.
The bulk of the film takes place a year later as the General is stolen by a Northern spy who unknowingly carries Annabelle Lee back to his troops. In pursuit is Johnny in the first of a series of wonderfully worked steam engine chases which circumvent the obvious limitation of a train chase (they are after all on the same track, one ahead of the other – not exactly The French Connection) with cleverly laid switches, imaginative complications and a real sense of energy.
There are many comic moments worthy of a dozen shorts (speaking of shorts, one of Keaton’s best, Cops, is screening with The General) but the film’s engine, so to speak, is the thrill of the chase and the never overplayed drama.
And behind both of those is a strong sense of reality, of believability. Not just in the stunts (performed by Keaton) and the spectacle (such as one shot of a train on a collapsing burning bridge) but in Johnny Gray, a man who retains his sense of self in the middle of chaos.