I remember once acting, as the Clown in All’s Well that Ends Well, for the famous producer Neville Coghill. Dissatisfied with my feeble attempts, Coghill said to me kindly: “Very good, Malcolm. But could you possibly do him as Buster Keaton?”
“No,” I replied,” I don’t think I’m up to that.”
“OK,” said Coghill, “do Stan Laurel or somebody.”
The thought that I could emulate Keaton was a good deal more hilarious than the not-very-funny Shakespearean lines I had to utter, since many decent judges think that Buster was the greatest clown in cinema history. He is now more fashionable than Chaplin, more loved than the Marx Brothers and, because of his sad, alcoholic decline, partly brought about by being sold into the unsympathetic hands of MGM, elevated into one of the tragic geniuses of movies.
Undoubtedly he was a genius as an actor. And if left to his own somewhat haphazard devices, Keaton was, as a director, capable of making truly beautiful films. The General was such a movie, based on a real incident during the American Civil War when a posse of northern soldiers hijacked a confederate train and a lone southern engineer found himself fighting the lot of them alone. Keaton plays the engineer. His girlfriend is on the train, and when his engine is stolen by northern spies, he rescues her, regains the engine, and returns to a huge welcome and an army commission.
The plot is built around the central motif of the rail chase, which becomes a source of extremely elaborate comedy. But the gags are never there for their own sake and seem totally integral to the story. What’s more, Keaton catches the essence of the Civil War period impeccably. It is a totally anti-heroic and anti-romantic film. Above all, The General seems like a film from a real director, almost perfect in structure and full of the rhythms of his best shorts.
Unlike Chaplin’s, Keaton’s films were outdoor movies, giving him the space to work and often vast panoramas to contrast with what his moving body. He was the little man juxtaposed against a huge universe, and he did all his stunts himself, playing against, in his various films, a dinosaur, an ocean liner, the entire union and confederate armies, the New York police force, a tribe of Indians and a whole series of giant mechanical objects. Usually, what dwarfed himself in the beginning became an ally he used to defeat his enemies at the end. The General contains all the values of the Keaton canon, in which his sense of parody (The Birth of a Nation here) and irony are supreme.
But it’s the brilliance of the gags that make him unique. Behind the blank eyes and frozen face, which never smiles, there was this ticking mechanism of a brain that could, in one stroke, make you laugh like a drain. He could also achieve acrobatics a circus performer would envy, skills gleaned from his time in vaudeville as a youth when his father held his ankles and swept the stage with his hair. There was no one quite like Keaton, and there never will be.