Buster Keaton’s THE GENERAL (1926) – A masterpiece of a train ride


The General, another of Buster Keaton’s movies to make it to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry (in 1989), is truly Keaton’s movie epic. Keaton’s heroism and stunts in any of his movies are always amazing to watch, but often they are almost too outsized for the ordinary world in which they take place. For once, Keaton’s settings match his physicality.

The movie is based on a true Civil War incident: the Andrews Raid, in which some Union soldiers hijacked a Southern locomotive named The General and attempted to drive it up north, destroying railroad tracks and cutting telegraph lines along the way. The raid failed when two Southern train conductors caught the raiders.

In his movie of the story, Keaton plays Johnnie Gray, a Georgia train engineer who, when the Civil War reaches his home town of Marietta, is as willing to enlist as anyone. Unfortunately, the recruiter refuses to enlist Johnnie because he is of more use to the South as an engineer than as a soldier. Even more unfortunately, the recruiter doesn’t tell Johnnie why he was turned down, leading Johnnie’s girlfriend Annabelle (Marion Mack) and her family to believe that Johnnie is a coward. Annabelle tells Johnnie she never wants to speak to him again “until you’re wearing a uniform.” But when Johnnie’s train is hijacked by the Northerners, his heroism eventually gets the train back, defeats the Northern soldiers, and rescues Annabelle after the Northerners kidnap her. (Ironically, Annabelle gets her wish; when Johnnie rescues her, he is wearing a Northern soldier’s uniform, which he had to don in order to get behind enemy lines.)

Keaton pulled out all the stops on this movie. He was fascinated by trains, and now one of them would be his co-star. Keaton told his crew that he wanted the movie to be “so authentic it hurts,” and the movie does indeed look like a Civil War photo come to life. The movie’s plotting is wonderfully symmetrical, as Johnnie becomes a hero by pulling the same tricks on the Northern soldiers as they had previously pulled on him. And of course, Keaton spared no personal effort either, constantly jumping on, off, over, and on top of a moving train and making it look as effortless as riding a bike. After seeing Keaton cowering from a boxer in Battling Butler, it’s a pleasure to watch him as a dashing hero.

(Again, a word must be said about Keaton’s lead female, in this case Annabelle. Well-meaning film historians have stated that Annabelle is another “dutiful but dumb” Keaton heroine. True, she does do a couple of silly things in the movie, but so does Keaton. When Johnnie comes to rescue Annabelle from the Northern soldiers, he is constantly “ssh-ing” her so that the Northerners won’t hear them, only to end up making more noise than she does. One wonders if Stan Laurel didn’t crib this routine from The General, since he did it so often in Laurel & Hardy comedies.)

Unfortunately, Keaton literally paid a high price for his authenticity. The General ended up costing three-quarters of a million dollars, slightly more than Battling Butler made. And it is an unfortunate fact of movie history that The General was a bomb financially, beginning the box-office decline that eventually forced Keaton to move to M-G-M.

The movie also earned Keaton some of his most hostile reviews. The New York Herald-Tribune called it “the least funny thing Buster Keaton has ever done.” And perhaps it is, if you’re looking for only a jokey comedy. Happily, the movie was re-discovered in the “Keaton renaissance” of the 1950’s and ’60s, and it has earned its rightful place as a critical darling ever since. (One can’t help but note that it is Keaton’s most adventurous movies, such as The General and Sherlock Jr., that were the most ill-received upon first release. If a movie buff needed any evidence that Keaton was ahead of his time, this would seem to be it.)

The General was one of the costliest movies of its time (including the single most expensive shot in silent-film history, when a bridge that Johnnie has sabotaged sinks a Northern train). But unlike many of today’s brain-dead blockbusters, every dollar of Keaton’s budget is up on the screen. The General is worthy movie-watching just for its sheer spectacle; the laughs are icing on the cake.

Buster Keaton: The Irony of the Irish


The following is my entry in “The Luck of the Irish Blog o’ Thon,” hosted by the blog Silver Scenes from March 15 to 17 in honor of St. Patrick’s Day. Click on the poster above, and read a variety of blogs celebrating cinema’s Irish heritage!


Famed silent film comedian Buster Keaton was born Joseph Frank Keaton on Oct. 4, 1895. Buster’s father, Joe, was of Scottish/Irish heritage. Keaton’s humor was not overtly Irish by any means. Yet there are certainly overtones of his ancestry throughout his life and his films.


Keaton began his show business career at the age of three as one of “The Three Keatons” (shown above), consisting of himself, his father Joe, and his mother Myra. The act was best known for Joe’s treatment of Buster. When Buster would goad his father on-stage, Joe made a point of throwing Buster into the scenery or even out into the orchestra pit.

This act got huge laughs, but it was also a huge source of controversy, then and now. Sob-sister Keaton biographers have tried to claim that this act was thinly disguised child abuse, and at the time of the act, child-care authorities were constantly trying to accuse Joe of same.

But it has been well-documented that Buster’s stage costume had a suitcase handle sewn into the back of it, and Buster learned early on how to take a fall like a pro, so that he was never injured as a result of the act. The authorities who were concerned about Buster examined him thoroughly and never found any bruises.

Nevertheless, this early “urban legend” has survived, with fact-free observers concluding that Keaton became the “stone face” character due to his having to take years of public abuse in stride. But Keaton’s films well demonstrate that he knew how to take a fall without getting hurt. Here is just one example, from Keaton’s solo debut film One Week (1920):


What is surely most “Irish” about Keaton’s movie persona is his stoicism in the face of calamity. The world seems to constantly knock Buster about, and he seems just as constantly to take it with a shrug, as though he knows the world won’t give him an inch and yet he’s still determined to make his way in it.

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Buster began his film career in 1917 supporting Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, who was one of the most popular film comedians of his time, second only to Charlie Chaplin in box-office revenues. Buster proved to be such a magnetic film presence and laugh-getter that eventually Joseph Schenck, Arbuckle’s producer, moved Keaton into Chaplin’s former studio and, from 1920 to 1928, produced short films and features co-written and -directed by Keaton that are now regarded as some of the most remarkable comedies of the silent film era.

To simply catalog some of Buster’s movie highlights is to list some of silent movies’ most famous stunts. In the aforementioned One Week, Buster and his newlywed bride try to build a do-it-yourself house that has been unknowingly sabotaged by the bride’s former boyfriend. resulting in one physical catastrophe after another.

There’s also: Buster swooping over a waterfall to save his girl in Our Hospitality (1923). Buster riding on the handlebars of a driverless motorcycle in Sherlock Jr. (1924). And Buster having a two-ton wall fall on him in Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928), escaping death only because of the wall’s open window falling down around him.


Most famously, there was his stunt-as-movie, The General (1926), in which Buster plays a Civil War train engineer from Georgia who singlehandedly fights Northern troops with his train as his only weapon. The camera in this movie seems almost as astonished as we the audience are, as it records Buster jumping off, on, over, and on top of his moving train and making it look as effortless as riding a bike.

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All of this was done long before CGI…and all of it was done by Keaton. Other than a high-hurdle in Keaton’s film College (1927) that was performed by an Olympic jumper, Buster did each of his stunts himself, in long shot. Keaton was achingly conscientious about performing “on the level,” demonstrating the hurdles his character went through rather than leaving them to an anonymous stunt man. (Keaton’s famous comment about why he went to all of this physical trouble himself: “Stunt men don’t get laughs.”)

Sadly, after eight years of artistic freedom, producer Schenck pulled the rug out from under Keaton. He sold Keaton’s contract to Metro-Goldywn-Mayer, where Keaton became just another contract player who had no say in the scripts or direction of his M-G-M movies.

Keaton had been known as a fairly hard drinker even before his contract was sold. When Keaton lost control over his movies, he drowned his sorrows in alcohol, to the point that M-G-M couldn’t take him anymore and fired him.

After a long period where his life spiralled out of control — his wife divorced him and changed their children’s last name from “Keaton”; he married another woman while in an alcoholic daze and later divorced her — Keaton eventually picked himself up. He returned to movies in cheap comedy shorts for Educational and Columbia Pictures. And in 1940, he married an actress and dancer named Eleanor Norris, who was 23 years younger than Keaton. Friends were certain the marriage wouldn’t stick, but it lasted until Keaton’s death in 1966.

Buster and Eleanor.

Buster and Eleanor.

So in the end, the story of the real-life Keaton paralleled that of his screen persona. He went through a major series of hard knocks but came out on top at the end. Fortunately, Keaton lived long enough to see a “renaissance” of his silent movies, which finally got the full appreciation they deserved.

Finally, if you have any doubts about Keaton’s Irish heritage, here is a clip from Buster Keaton Rides Again, a documentary filmed a year before Keaton’s death. In particular, note Keaton’s response to a cake that is presented to him in honor of his 69th birthday.


My Buster Keaton websites

I’d like to encourage all of my readers to visit The Love Nest, my newly erected website devoted primarily to Buster Keaton’s independently made silent films from 1920 to 1928. The URL is: http://busterkeaton.moviefever.com


I’d also like to encourage you to visit its “sister” website, “General” Information, the only website devoted to Buster Keaton’s classic movie The General. Its URL is: http://BusterKeatonGeneral.moviefever.com


Honorary Oscars: The Rodney Dangerfield of film comedy


The following is my entry in the “31 Days of Oscar” Blogathon, being held from Feb. 2 through 24, and sponsored by the blogs Paula’s Cinema ClubOutspoken & Freckled, and Once Upon a Screen.

Each week’s blogs have a different Oscar-related theme. I am contributing to the “Oscar Snubs” week being held Feb. 9 and 10. (Why am I contributing my blog five days before the deadline? Because that’s how I roll, baby!)

In any case, click on the blogathon’s poster (above) to read some interesting insights into various aspects of the history of the Academy Awards!

The Little Tramp cleans up after a very ambitious Oscar number.

The Little Tramp cleans up after a very ambitious Oscar number.

This blog is about three very deserving movie-comedy idols, all of whom were awarded Oscars. At this point, you’re probably thinking, How does such a blog fit in under the heading “Oscar Snubs”?


The answer is simple. Buster Keaton, Charles Chaplin, and Groucho Marx all received “Honorary Oscars” at the twilight of their lives. The Motion Picture Academy’s thinly veiled secret is that such Oscars are awarded only after Academy members suffer pangs of guilt over not properly honoring these comedy giants in the heyday of their careers.

So this is my way of righting the Movie Comedy Universe. The slate is thus wiped clean, and this trio of classic comedians are justly awarded Oscars for some of their best movie work.

(Before I begin, a full disclosure. Chaplin actually did win an Oscar of sorts, at the very first Oscar presentation, but it was the early equivalent of a Honorary Oscar. He was given a Special Oscar “for versatility and genius in writing, acting, directing and producing The Circus.” However [and sadly], this took Chaplin out of the running for acting, writing, directing, and Best Picture categories for which he had initially been nominated. Here’s your consolation prize, Tramp, now get off the stage.

(Also, I would gladly have included Stan Laurel in this list [He received an Honorary Oscar in 1961], had Laurel & Hardy’s The Music Box not won an Oscar for Best Short Subject of 1932. You got by on a pass on that one, Academy!)



Buster Keaton: Awarded an Honorary Oscar in 1960 “for his unique talents which brought immortal comedies to the screen.”

The movie for which he should have won an Oscar: The General (1926). 

(Somebody is bound to p*** on my parade about this one, so let me clarify some things. The first Oscar ceremony, held in 1929, was purposed to honor the best films of 1927 and 1928. According to Wikipedia, The General’s U.S. release date was Dec. 31, 1926 — which, of course, means that it technically doesn’t qualify as a 1927 film, although it was released in several other regions in ‘27. But in my just Movie Comedy Universe, are you really not going to cut 24 hours’ slack for a movie that has been widely regarded as one of the best of all time? I thought not.)


In this movie (based on a real-life Civil War story), Keaton plays Johnnie Gray, a Georgia train engineer who wants to enlist in the war as badly as anyone. But the local recruiter refuses to enlist Johnnie because he is needed in the South as an engineer. However, nobody imparts this information to Johnnie or his peers, leading Johnnie’s girlfriend Annabelle to snub him because she thinks he’s a coward. Later, when Annabelle is kidnapped by Northern rebels, Johnnie takes it upon himself to rescue her, using his train The General as a one-man sabotage operation against the North.

This synopsis does not begin to do justice to one of silent film’s most powerful movies. Keaton told his crew that he wanted the movie to be “so authentic it hurts,” and as a result, this marvelously photographed film looks like a Civil War photo come to life. The movie’s plotting is wonderfully symmetrical, as Johnnie becomes a hero by pulling the same tricks on the Northern soldiers as they had previously pulled on him. Most of all, Keaton spared no personal effort on this movie, constantly jumping off, on, over, and on top of a moving train and making it look as effortless as riding a bike.


Sadly, by the time the first Oscar presentation took place, Keaton was a movie marionette whose strings were being pulled by M-G-M’s Louis B. Mayer — who, by no small coincidence, had founded the Motion Picture Academy and had created the Academy Award basically to curb some of Hollywood’s most swelled heads by giving them the tributes they felt they deserved. There is no way that Mayer would have recognized any of Keaton’s pre-M-G-M work with an award. It took several decades of re-viewing for critics and movie buffs to realize what a classic The General was and is.

The next time you see some movie star being aided in his myth-making by stuntmen and CGI, remember that one comedian previously did eye-popping stunts on his own, long before anyone even conceived of a computer in which special effects could be created.



Charles Chaplin: Awarded an Honorary Award in 1972 “for the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of this century.”

The movie for which he should have won an Oscar: City Lights (1931).

Chaplin conceived of City Lights in late 1929, just as talkie fever had engulfed Hollywood. Chaplin considered making his new movie as a talkie. But in the end, he opted for the Tramp’s universal silent appeal, realizing that once he talked on screen, he would be “like every other comedian.” So Chaplin bucked the tide and went ahead with the movie as a silent picture.

In this movie, Chaplin’s Tramp falls in love with a blind flower girl. (She was played by Virginia Cherrill, who by Chaplin’s account could not convey the simplest actions plausibly and required take after take of each scene. But in the end, Chaplin realized that only Cherrill could suitably convey the flower girl’s charm.)

The Tramp tries various odd jobs to earn money for an operation to restore the girl’s eyesight (and these “jobs” are some of the movie’s highlights). The Tramp also ends up making friends with a rich drunk (Harry Myers) who adores the Tramp while he’s in his cups but has no memory of him when he’s sober.

All of this results in some wonderful comedy, mostly because Chaplin does indeed use sound, but uses it mostly to comment on the character’s actions (as when Charlie swallows a whistle and it makes noises at inopportune moments). And it certainly results in some risible drama, particularly in the movie’s final scene, where Chaplin and Cherrill’s minimalist acting has left generations of moviegoers either stunned or teary-eyed at movie’s end.


As with The General, City Lights is an example of being seen and re-seen for generations to rightly earn its place in the film pantheon. Too bad the Academy couldn’t see a good thing when it was right on movie screens across the country.



Groucho Marx: Awarded an Honorary Oscar in 1974 “in recognition of his brilliant creativity and for the unequaled achievements of the Marx Brothers in the art of motion picture comedy.” 

The movie for which he should have won an Oscar: A Day at the Races (1937).

My Oscar choice is sure to rankle many Marx Brothers buffs. The popular choice would probably be Duck Soup (1933), which is certainly my own all-time favorite Marx Brothers movie. But actors’ Oscars are meant to recognize individual acting achievement. And I contend that no single Marx Brother made as much of an impact on a Marx Brothers movie as Groucho did in A Day at the Races. 

The movie’s story is that a sanitarium is about to be torn down and replaced with a race track, thanks to the sanitarium’s unscrupulous landowner. But the sanitarium’s richest patient (Margaret Dumont) decides to help save the place by bringing in her most cherished doctor: Hugo Z. Hackenbush (Groucho) who, unbeknownst to the patient but soon discovered by others, has earned his medical title by serving as a horse doctor.

Groucho’s most memorable Marx Bros. outings display him as a pre-supposed man of society, while Groucho outwardly displays himself as a phony to citizens who are either too dumb or too spineless to show that this emperor wears no clothes. (Think of explorer Geoffrey Spaulding in Animal Crackers, who faints when he finds a caterpillar on his sleeve; or Freedonia leader Rufus T. Firefly, who sings in his inaugural address, “If you think this country’s bad off now, just wait ‘til I get through with it.”)


And when it comes to comedy (we’ll politely ignore this movie’s gaseous musical interludes), you can barely think of A Day at the Races without Groucho. Other than the superb charades scene involving only Harpo and Chico, every major comedy moment in this movie involves Groucho. Either he’s putting one over on the sanitarium’s sleazy administrators, skittering from one woman to another during a society dance, or demonstrating (with his brothers) the paramount importance of washing one’s hands in lieu of performing an actual operation.

In my humble opinion, Races was Groucho’s finest hour with the Marx Brothers; with or without his brothers, he never operated again at such full steam in a movie. So why wasn’t he nominated for an Oscar? 

What?? Not King Louis again!

What?? Not King Louis again!

This is quite a reach, I’ll admit, but I’d like to think that the smoking gun again lay at the hand of, yes, Louis B. Mayer. Ironically, Races was an M-G-M production, so you’d think that Mayer would have been supporting such an Oscar nom. But sadly, Mayer was no friend of Groucho’s after having been snubbed by him. One day, Mayer and Groucho happened to pass each other in an M-G-M corridor, and Mayer, trying to make friendly small talk, asked, “Well, how’s the picture going, Groucho?”

Groucho, beholden to M-G-M producer Irving Thalberg and no one else, curtly replied to one of Hollywood’s biggest movers-and-shakers, “I don’t think that’s any of your business!” and moved on down the hall.

If there had ever been even the slightest possibility that Groucho could have been nominated for an Oscar, that exchange certainly put the kibosh to it. Happily, we still have A Day at the Races and many other Marx Brothers movies available for the purpose of anti-establishment hilarity.


So there you have it. Three comedy greats who were basically awarded a “guilt Oscar” rather than a worthy award for any of their great work. Is it any wonder that Woody Allen snubbed the Oscars when Annie Hall swept them in 1977?

“Look! There are those silly people going to the Oscar ceremony again!”