The General is back in cinemas nationwide, including an extended run at BFI Southbank, from 24 January.
Forgive me if you’ve heard this one before, but it’s probably best to get it out of the way. For me, Joseph Francis Keaton, better known to the world as Buster, has always been an unassailable giant of the cinema. He was not merely the greatest of the silent comedians, he is also – in my opinion – the greatest of all comic actors to have appeared on the silver screen. He was not only a great American filmmaker of the silent era, he is also one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, anywhere, and belongs in the very highest level of the cinematic pantheon alongside the likes of Fritz Lang, Carl Dreyer, Jean Vigo, Jean Renoir, Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu, Howard Hawks, Orson Welles, Max Ophuls, Ingmar Bergman and a handful of others.
In short, Keaton is as good as it gets. Years ago, in a piece I wrote in Time Out, I likened to him to a god – but then gave Buster the benefit of the comparison. After all, unlike gods – and, indeed, unlike most of the aforementioned directors – Buster has the advantage of being able to make us laugh. And laugh. And laugh.
And that may be why his achievements as a filmmaker are not as widely appreciated as they should be. Though it’s something that we all enjoy, comedy is seldom given the credit it’s due as an art form. Just look at the results of the 2012 Sight & Sound poll to determine the greatest films ever made, in which Keaton’s The General (1926) came in at number 34.
Now that (to me ludicrously) low position can be attributed in part to the film’s comparative invisibility in recent times – in the 1972 and 1982 polls, when the film was more regularly screened, it was voted, respectively, into the eighth and 10th spots.
It may also have something to do with the extraordinary consistency of Keaton’s work. Unlike Welles, Renoir, John Ford, F.W. Murnau, Dziga Vertov or even Ozu, where a single very famous title tends to be the default choice for a great many pollsters, Keaton – rather like Bergman, Eric Rohmer or Abbas Kiarostami (to name three personal favourites of mine) – probably had his advocates tormenting themselves over which film to vote for. I generally end up having to choose between The General, Our Hospitality (1923) and Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928) – though some of the other features are also tempting options.
But there is also that apparently enduring and widespread prejudice against the notion that comedy can be deserving of serious consideration for true greatness. In the 2012 Sight & Sound poll the closest things to comedies that beat The General were Renoir’s La Règle du jeu (#4), Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (#12) and Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain (#20) – the first two only partly concerned with provoking laughter, the third as notable for its music, dancing and Technicolor dream romance as it is for its gently satirical recreation of Hollywood’s tricky transition from silent movies to the talkies.
It’s much the same if you continue down beyond The General: the only other comedies in the top 50 are Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot and Jacques Tati’s Playtime (joint #43) and Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights (#50), itself a former occupant of spots in the top 10. And note, while we’re still with the poll, how Alfred Hitchcock’s atypically brooding Vertigo (1958) came in at number one, far outstripping the darkly witty Psycho and way, way ahead of various lighter suspense thrillers
All of which is simply to point out that artistic greatness is more likely to be overlooked in a comedy than in a deadly serious drama. And just as Keaton belongs up there with the other great artists of the cinematic medium, so I’d argue that The General belongs among the very greatest movies ever made.
For one thing, this peerless chase comedy also succeeds magnificently as serious, suspenseful civil war drama. It not only makes us laugh, but it makes us care about the characters – particularly for Buster’s Johnnie Gray, the Confederate railway engineer who risks life and limb to travel behind enemy lines and back to retrieve both his train, stolen by spies, and the girl of his dreams, who just happened to be on board the thing when it was taken.
Keaton always knew how important it was for the audience to believe in his film’s characters and stories – that’s why he ensured that The General, Our Hospitality and Steamboat Bill Jr. were so meticulously accurate and detailed in vividly evoking the worlds they depicted.
It’s also why he paid so much attention to how a film was constructed. Just as a storyline was never just a string of loosely linked gags, so he never simply plonked a camera down to record whatever was going on before it. The General is a masterpiece in terms of its camera placement and movements and its elastic editing. David Bordwell has quite rightly written of “the unfussy rigour of Keaton’s style, his clean-lined visual sensibility, a kind of diagrammatic purity, using awesome contrasts of distance and scale.”
If you can possibly distance yourself a little from the engrossing story and hilarious gags, try to keep an eye out for the way Keaton uses the camera, and how he cuts shots together; his mastery of cinematic space and time is both complete and utterly versatile. But he manages to make everything look so extremely easy, so effortless that it’s hard even to notice what he’s doing – we’re too busy being carried along by the fluid narrative… and laughing.
That, truly, is the deceptiveness of great art. Genius is a word much overused, but in the case of Keaton, nothing else will suffice. And The General demonstrates, perhaps still more than any other of his films, that his genius was not only for comedy but for filmmaking itself.