Saturday, December 5, 2009
I can safely say I know Buster Keaton's The General better than any film in existence. Literally. When I grew up in the pre-home-video 1960s, if you wanted to collect film, it meant silent film. Mostly classics from Blackhawk Films, plus some excerpts from Universal Pictures from Castle Films. And they weren't cheap. I saved up $50 dollars--1968 dollars--to purchase, on four 400-ft reels of standard 8mm film--to own my own copy of The General.
And I would watch it every chance I got. If I didn't want to commandeer the living room, set up the projector and screen (and probably record player) and close the curtains, I could put the film on my editing machine and hand-crank it past the magnifying screen. This had the advantage of being able to look at sequences frame-by-frame over and over and over.
So The General became a sort-of internal experience. What fun, then to share it with my Film Studies class (they actually said "yay!" when they saw Buster's face on the menu card). While I was trying to be all analytical and film-studies-ish, but the class--happily--ignored me and became an audience. "Oh!" "Watch out!" "She is SO stupid!" And there were all the laughs and gasps in the right places.
A word about the laughs. The General is not Buster's funniest film. It is his best. How can a film be a comedian's best when it is not his funniest? Because The General never fails to command audience involvement. Laughs, yes. But identification with the characters and hope for Buster/Johnny's success even more. The film is perfectly clear at all times. It needs no explanation, no apologies, no context. It no longer matters that it was one of his least successful features on initial release. I'm happy to say, given its ubiquity (it went into public domain before his other great films), that The General may serve as Keaton's epitaph and summary. You should see it again--but with an audience.