STORY OF THE SHOT
“RAILROADS ARE A great prop,” Buster Keaton once said. “You can do some awful wild things with railroads.” The General, Keaton’s 1926 masterpiece, proves his theory 10-fold. Based on a real incident in the American
Civil War, Keaton plays locomotive engineer Johnnie, whose train, The General, and girl, Annabelle (Marion Mack), are stolen by Northern soldiers. At one point, giving chase on a stolen locomotive, Keaton jumps off the train, picks up a wooden sleeper from the track, lies back on the cow catcher then throws it at another sleeper to get both out of the way. It’s a stunning mixture of cinematic bravura and extreme accuracy.
“When I watch it at home, I go, ‘Wow, that is so precise,’” says Patricia Eliot Tobias, President Emerita of The International Buster Keaton Society. “But if I see it on a big screen with an audience, they gasp and burst into applause.
How many movies now does something happen and people just burst into applause?”
The gag was captured in Cottage Grove, Oregon, during the summer of 1926. It is not known whether Keaton mounted the camera on a train or a car stripped of tyres so the rims could run on rails. With co-director Clyde Bruckman keeping an eye on Keaton’s performance, the stone-faced daredevil pulled off the gag in one solitary take.
“It was too dangerous to do it more than once,” says Eliot Tobias. “If he had missed, the sleeper would have knocked the train off the track or it would have crushed the cow catcher and him with it. Fortunately, he tended to know what he was doing.”
Astonishingly, Keaton didn’t edit on traditional editing equipment. Instead he edited by hand, eye and scissors. But for this joke, Keaton eschewed cuts, playing the action out in one continuous shot.
“The gag is nothing special but the execution is sublime,” Have I Got News For You legend and Keaton aficionado Paul Merton wrote in his book Silent Comedy. “The joke could have been created by a mixture of close-ups and medium shots… The trouble is, it is not so funny. Authenticity — that’s what Buster was after.
The gag is only genuinely funny when you see him do it for real.”
Contrary to Merton’s enthusiasm for the gag’s effectiveness, there is debate among silent film scholars about whether The General amazes more than it amuses. “They laugh,” Keaton himself once said about the moment, “but a little bit later.” The General became Keaton’s favourite of his own films and, after a mixed reception on release, is now considered a landmark in silent cinema. In fact, you could even call it a sleeper.
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