Went to see Buster Keaton’s The General last night

The Saskatoon Symphony has a series they started last year, called “Silence is Golden.” Twenty or so of their group plays the music for a silent film as it runs for the audience. Last year they got the score and the reels for Metropolis and that was a fantastic event. Tickets are still available for shows at the Roxy today for this year’s feature.

To make The General musically entertaining, they invited a talented pianist from Los Angeles to join them. According to the handout I got when I went in (and their website), Rick Friend is a silent movie music composer of some renown. He wrote and compiled the collection of music that was used by the symphony for this. He became enamoured by the film in his youth and that’s what got him started with this career. A good choice, if I do say so. I think it’s neat that people want to do this kind of thing, keeping the old shows interesting and alive, as it were.

The plot of the film goes as follows. Buster Keaton plays Johnny Gray, a train engineer who has two loves: his train the General, and a local girl. The film takes place at the start of the American Civil War and Johnny discovers his girl, Annabelle, is mad about a man in uniform and won’t speak to him anymore if he doesn’t enlist like her father and brother. Unfortunately, when the recruitment office learns of his job, they decide he’ll be more useful as an engineer instead of a soldier and they reject him. So too does his girl.

Ahead a little in time and we discover Dad’s been injured. Annabelle hops aboard the General to meet him in some other town but unfortunately has picked the very day an evil Northern Spy and his cronies intend to steal the train and stop the South’s advancement. She gets accidentally kidnapped (nobody saw her climb into the baggage car when everyone disembarked for lunch) and hijinks ensue when Johnny realizes his beloved train has been stolen. More hijinks ensue when he catches up with the dastardly team and realizes they’ve got Annabelle, as well. He rescues both her and the train and they take off to warn the nearest town (he overheard their plans while hiding under the table).

They succeed, of course. It’s that kind of movie. What struck me were the comedy elements of the film. Buster Keaton really was an amazing physical actor, especially when taking into account the fact that he was putting his life on the line for those train stunts he was doing, let alone everything else that could have smacked him in the head if he didn’t move out of the way fast enough. Caber tossing slabs of wood around to hilariously fall off the wood car. Sitting on the cow catcher and hopping on and off the train as necessary. Yikes!

Annabelle’s ineptitude regarding the train wound up being played for a lot of laughs, too. There’s a scene where she’s supposed to be feeding wood to the fire and she’s just tossing a stick in or a twig and then throws what should be a perfectly fine piece of wood for the fire right off the train because t has a great big hole in the middle of it.

Then Johnny strangles her in the fashion of Homer strangling Bart…guffaw guffaw… holy cats! Why did I just laugh at that!? Does the immediate kiss afterward somehow cancel out the abuse that just happened!? Holy shit.. In another scene, Johnny’s piling wood on a trestle with the intention of setting the bridge on fire to stop the Union army from following. She’s tossing little sticks down to help him instead of heaving some bigger pieces off and he up and chucks a piece back at her. More laughter, more of my shocked laughter.. Cripes. She kind of gets back at him for that one though– she lights it all up before he’s ready and he’s stuck trying to leap the fire before she takes the train too far ahead. He does manage to jump it but falls through the trestle and hits the water below.

I came out of the film marveling over what people find funny, I guess. Some gags are apparently eternal. They were funny in 1926, they’re funny now. Poking people in the butts with swords, falling down, getting slapped by tree branches, etc. Some behaviours though, like these I shared involving Keaton and Marion Mack, probably never should been played for laughs, and yet we laugh at them. Why? Is it just the level of absurdity that’s catching us off guard when we laugh there?

Physical abuse aimed at anyone shouldn’t be comedic fodder and yet it’s been a comic staple for decades. Why? Would any comedy be able to get away with this kind of abuse aimed at a woman now? Yet it’s still somehow funny to see two guys going violently overboard — scenes from the recent Green Hornet movie come to mind. Why would that be, because it’s assumed that guys, being stronger over all, can take it? What makes one hilarious and the other completely appalling? Have our sensibilities altered? Is it a cultural/societal thing? A “paradigm shift” for lack better phrasing?

It’s just things I’m thinking about, the morning after.

Good movie, though. I’d definitely watch it again.

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