Buster Keaton’s magisterial “The General”.

Buster Keaton, a force of nature.

Orson Welles said of Buster Keaton, that he was “one of the most beau­ti­ful peo­ple who was ever pho­tographed”. And he said that Keaton’s sig­na­ture film The Gen­er­al, from 1926, wasn’t just Hollywood’s great­est com­e­dy, but the best film that was ever pro­duced there. “It real­ly deserves that tired word, masterpiece.”

Keaton grew up as part of a fam­i­ly vaude­ville act and he made his way inevitably to New York in 1917, where he teamed up with Fat­ty Arbuck­le at the Tal­madge Stu­dios – stick­ing by the lat­ter, both pub­licly and finan­cial­ly, after his spec­tac­u­lar and unmer­it­ed fall from grace.

Buster Keaton’s The General.

By 1920, he’d mar­ried one of the Tal­madge daugh­ters and had moved out to Hol­ly­wood where he set up and ran his own, inde­pen­dent film stu­dio. There, he pro­duced a suc­ces­sion of spec­tac­u­lar­ly suc­cess­ful shorts, includ­ing the just­ly renown The Play­house, in which he plays all of the dozen and more char­ac­ters who peo­ple the first ten min­utes or so – although beau­ti­ful he might have been in a suit, but I’m afraid he very much failed to cut it when try­ing to sport a dress.

By the mid­dle of the decade, his ambi­tions had expand­ed and he moved into ful­ly fledged fea­tures, which even­tu­al­ly pro­duced The Gen­er­al. At the time, it was the most expen­sive film that had ever been made, but trag­i­cal­ly it flopped, and he was forced to close down his stu­dio, los­ing his much cher­ished inde­pen­dence in the process. And at exact­ly the same time, Al Jon­son could sud­den­ly be heard in cin­e­mas through­out Amer­i­ca, as over night the arrival of the talkies ren­dered the silent era redundant.

6 Keatons look and lis­ten on, as Keaton con­ducts in The Play­house.

Pre­dictably, his wife Natal­ie left him, tak­ing all his mon­ey and both his sons – gen­er­ous­ly forc­ing them to change their sur­name – and, fol­low­ing in his father’s foot­steps, he slipped into alco­holism and increas­ing anonymi­ty. But, after briefly mar­ry­ing and divorc­ing a nurse at the insti­tu­tion he’d been con­fined to, he met and mar­ried his third wife, Eleanor in 1940.

At 22, she was lit­er­al­ly half his age and nei­ther of their friends held out any hope for the union. Remark­ably, it last­ed for over a quar­ter of a cen­tu­ry, and she can large­ly be cred­it­ed with help­ing him to turn his life around.

Beck­et­t’s Film, star­ring Buster Keaton.

There was a sec­ond act of sorts, in tele­vi­sion and with cameos in the likes of A Fun­ny Thing Hap­pened on the Way to the Forum. As well of course as in Beckett’s only for­ay into the medi­um, Film of 1965. And he seems to have borne it all, once he got over his alco­holism, with remark­able equa­nim­i­ty. But there’s no get­ting away from it, his tal­ents were crim­i­nal­ly over­looked in the course of his own life. And it’s real­ly only now that peo­ple have come to ful­ly appre­ci­ate the scale of his genius.

In a way, it’s not hard to see why The Gen­er­al per­plexed those ini­tial view­ers. It doesn’t have the same mad­cap may­hem of those ear­li­er shorts, and is a far more mea­sured, mature and sophis­ti­cat­ed a piece. It still has any num­ber of those jaw-drop­ping feats of phys­i­cal dar­ing that so thrilled audi­ences then. As a mat­ter of fact, it’s prob­a­bly we who fail to ful­ly appre­ci­ate the phys­i­cal­i­ty of his film mak­ing, so used are we now to just assum­ing that every­thing we see on a screen must obvi­ous­ly have been doc­tored and massaged.

Evi­dent­ly, a man’s man.

Have a look at this 5 minute clip here, and then have a look at it again. There are no spe­cial effects or stunt dou­bles, and the only trick pho­tog­ra­phy he ever uses is the sort of sleight of hand that is self-evi­dent­ly a trick. Like the time he appears on stage in The Play­house play­ing all 9 mem­bers of the cho­rus line, as well as each of the mem­bers of the orches­tra below. Oth­er than which, every­thing you see him do, phys­i­cal­ly, he real­ly does actu­al­ly do.

That he was the great­est phys­i­cal actor of the 20th cen­tu­ry is with­out ques­tion. What he shows in The Gen­er­al is that, beyond that, he had an aston­ish­ing gift for depth and sub­tle­ty and a God like sense of tim­ing. Nev­er has the great stone face been put to more impres­sive if impas­sive use, and the per­for­mance he con­jures up in between lit­er­al­ly death defy­ing stunts of Archi­me­di­an pre­ci­sion is a sight to behold.

He was quite sim­ply an irre­press­ible force of nature. So the next time you have 78 min­utes to spare, watch The Gen­er­al which you can see here.


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