Buster Keaton’s first feature-length comedy is one of his best, a comic gem set against a backdrop of a Hatfield-McCoy style family feud. Raised far from the scene of generations of “McKay-Canfield” violence, young Willie McKay (Keaton) knows nothing about the bad blood between the two families — until the time comes for him to go home and claim his inheritance.
Of course there’s a girl (Natalie Talmadge, whom Keaton later married), and of course she turns out to be a Canfield, and of course Willie’s determination to stay away from the Canfields doesn’t work out quite as planned.
Much of the humor involves a riff on Southern hospitality, as the Canfields decide that they can’t kill Willie while he’s their guest — i.e., while he’s under their roof. A cat-and-mouse game ensues, with the Canfield men trying to get Willie to step outside while he tries desperately not to be caught outdoors — all under the nose of the blissfully ignorant Virginia, who has no idea who her gentleman friend is.
Fans of Keaton’s great train classic The General will be struck by Keaton’s early, adroit use of a much earlier period steam engine. This model runs on flexible tracks that look as if they were simply unspooled across the landscape, and the engine itself moves no faster than a horse-drawn buggy, allowing Willie’s dog to trot along under the cars for the duration of the trip (much like the Ingalls’s dog Jack trotting under the family wagon in the Little House books).
Keaton was given to grand comic gestures, a flair seen in a spectacular throwaway gag in which a demolished dam and a huge cascade of water inadvertently provides momentary cover for Keaton’s hapless hero. But the film’s most memorable moment is unarguably a breathtaking climactic stunt on the cusp of a waterfall.
Arguably the greatest of Buster Keaton’s silent comedies, The General begins with a single, brilliantly sustained premise and works it into an engaging story that combines edge-of-your-seat excitement, stunningly conceived stunts and sight gags, spectacular set pieces, touching sentiment, and a rousing finale.
Buster Keaton’s most popular vehicle in his own day, and said to be Keaton’s favorite of his own films, The Navigator isn’t as sophisticated and satisfying as his best work (e.g., The General), but it’s still brilliant slapstick comedy, with a rousing third act and a slam-bang climax.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.