This 1926 Buster Keaton film is the first on my To Be Watched list; to see if I can educate myself in film this year.
Based on The Great Locomotive Chase of 1862, during the American Civil War, this is an action fuelled romantic comedy; that sees Johnnie Gray (Buster Keaton), the engineer on ‘The General’, go behind enemy lines to save the women he loves, Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack).
Written and directed by Buster Keaton, the stunts come thick and fast. Leaping around on moving trains, bridges collapsing, things on fire – it’s amazing to think that he is actually doing all of this for real in real-time! And not just him, but Annabelle Lee too. In her huge floral frock she clambers around on top of the train, jumps from carriages and chucks wood on the fire. It made me realise how rarely we see that in films – she wasn’t styled as an action character, just a person with two perfectly capable working arms and they need to get moving! I’m told this is because it was made before The Hays Report on censorship took hold, and women became something else entirely.
On the whole I don’t like slapstick, and I think I had never considered watching a Buster Keaton film before now because I thought it would be like Charlie Chaplin. It isn’t. I liked Buster. There were a couple of moments of knock about humour but not enough to be tiresome, actually they were fun and I found myself laughing a lot, his face is so solemn and his character so endearing. “The still, small suffering centre of the hysteria of slapstick” said the critic Karen Jaehne, which seems perfectly put. My favourite part though was funny and romantic and sandwiched between action sequences. Johnny Gray is hiding under a tablecloth with a hole in it, his eye peers through the hole to see Annabelle Lee and then we get a reverse shot of her looking at him through the framed hole. It was sweet, fun and very stylish and I’m told is a device that’s going to be much used in the future. Hitchcock and the binoculars in Rear Window is one example I’m looking forward too. But I’m getting ahead of myself, I’ve got 20+ years of film making to go before that gem!