February 7, 1927 [The General]

At the center of the American film comedy--perhaps of American film itself--is The Chase. And while it may be predictable, grow tiresome, and fail to satisfy the need for a “proper” dénouement, The Chase continues, as it were, if only because of the three-dimensional possibilities it contains: length, width and depth, the two-dimensional screen all but exploded to fit it. One almost has to read Edwin Abbott’s Flatland to appreciate the cheating geometry of The Chase.

But what has Keaton done in The General? His train Chase ignores the rules: Trains are bound by their tracks, and must doggedly follow their finite line segments--obedient points that they are--from left to right, right to left. Depth is achieved only along a diagonal--the line segment radiating away from the camera--and even the curve of the tracks is a mere technicality. Forget height.

And this is the pleasure of The General. Keaton begins with the limits he has set for himself--and then places human figures on the line segment, springing into the air, leaping from train to train, clambering along his Flatland like monkeys--and more: He forces his trains to cross and curve, suddenly snakes, the dimensions magically restored. --And, as usual, this new reality, explosive, massive as--well, a train--embraces a single undisturbed figure: Keaton himself, the stable little point, stoically accepting heights and depths--and any lengths to which the plot will go to plunk him in his sweetheart’s arms.

Yes, the movie’s based on a true story; but Keaton pares down the “truth” to fit the experiment and to satisfy his urge to remain the Mover Unmoved. The Chase will never be the same.

Comments

  1. Paul,

    I am truly, truly impressed. How the HELL did you think of cross-referencing Flatland with The General? Both of these masterpieces have been intimate parts of my mental furniture for well over 40 years, and yet I never thought of jamming them together. But it works!

    By the way, on The General Keaton went to great lengths to ensure historical accuracy; he hired Civil War veterans as technical advisors. This was the first time a film comedy was given such serious treatment. It was also, to my knowledge, the first time multiple cameras were employed to shoot the same shot: they had one bridge, and one locomotive to drive off of it, and they could only do it once. Keaton set up several cameras all running at the same time to ensure that if one camera failed the others would get the shot.

    This is also one of the movies on which Keaton badly hurt himself. In the scene with the water tower, when literally tons of water fall on him, he actually broke his neck. But he was so athletic that his neck muscles held everything safely in place, and he had no idea the injury was so serious until years later, when a doctor was studying his X-ray and asked "When did you break your neck?"

    Most of his stunts, like those of Harold Lloyd, were done without cheating; in fact I can only think of one bit of wire work, in an otherwise brilliant short named Cops. (The scene on the see-saw board.) Have no fear, though; the scene where he escapes the police by simply extending his arm and grabbing the handrail of a passing streetcar is absolutely real, and it's amazing he didn't lose his arm.

    Steamboat Bill, Jr. came closest to killing him; the famous scene of the front of the building falling on him but he's not hurt because the top-floor window falls around him was shot exactly as it happened: if any of a hundred calculations had been out of whack or the breeze come up from an unexpected direction, he would have been crushed. He had only two or three inches clearance on each side.

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  2. I just watched Cops again for the first time in years, and I was wrong in two aspects: It's a see-saw ladder that sets up the wire gag, and the vehicle Keaton grabs as it passes is an automobile, not a streetcar. As you know, eyewitness accounts are always suspect.

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