“Chaplin or Keaton?” is one of those eternal questions, like “Star Wars or Star Trek?” “The Beatles or the Stones?” There’s no correct answer, but the side you pick can reveal fundamental aspects of your character. Charlie Chaplin is far more famous today, with his “Tramp” character’s iconic bowler hat, mustache, and cane making him an easily recognized caricature around the world, a century after his first appearance. But many film aficionados and comedy fans prefer Buster Keaton, “the great stone face,” and his heart-stopping stunts.
Keaton’s work is full of compelling contradictions. He maintained a stoic, deadpan expression even as the world collapsed around him. He brought an elegance to orchestrating calamitous mishaps and destruction. Both a wide-eyed innocent and a cynical prankster, he conveyed an irrepressible gentleness and thoughtfulness even while risking his life, and health, by executing incredibly dangerous stunts. Whereas Chaplin’s films are broad and often sentimental, Keaton’s work is more subtle and graceful, and more ambitious in its staging of comedic mayhem.
Born to Vaudeville performers, Keaton was raised on the stage, learning how to execute cartoonish pratfalls as soon as he learned to walk. He began his film career as a gag man and character actor in Mack Sennett’s productions in the 1910s, often working alongside Fatty Arbuckle. He perfected his skills by directing his own short films in the late teens, and hit his stride in the ’20s as a director of a series of features in which he starred. Steamboat Bill, Jr., Go West, College, and Battling Butler are among his masterpieces.
The common tragedy of silent stars is that sound killed many of their careers. It’s possible that Keaton might have survived the transition—the intertitles in his films are often as funny as the sight gags—but his career was crushed by studio mismanagement when he transferred to MGM, compounded by debilitating alcoholism. He never regained his winning streak of the 1920s, but in later years he regained some stability, working as a joke writer for the Marx Brothers and Lucille Ball, and cementing his legacy through numerous cameo appearances in film and television.
Buster Keaton’s beloved 1926 film The General screens at the Paramount on Sunday, May 26. This marks the film’s second appearance at the theater in as many years, but it is a perennial favorite. Keaton counted it among his favorite films, and everyone from Orson Welles to Roger Ebert has claimed it as not only his best comedy, but one of the greatest films of all time.
The General stars Keaton as a railroad engineer for the Confederate Army (a questionable choice, justified with the specious argument that Keaton thought the audience would rather root for an underdog) whose fiancée is kidnapped by Union soldiers. Keaton pursues them by rail, and the film’s first half is a breathtaking and sidesplitting locomotive chase, as technically impressive as it is hilarious.
In an era predating not only modern CGI but even the simple technological advances required for stop-motion or miniature model-work of the mid-20th century, the only way to film the elaborate chase sequences by train was to get your hands on some trains and actually do it. Keaton races from one train car to the next, climbing along and under a driverless moving engine, firing cannons, switching tracks, and de-coupling cars, often all within a single shot. That Keaton was able to execute these sequences without getting himself killed is impressive. That he was able to instill these moving trains with his own perfect comic timing is the essence of his genius.
The film loses a little steam in its second half, but retains its funnybone, and builds towards a climax in which a speeding train collapses a burning wooden bridge, filmed (you guessed it) by sending a speeding train across a burning wooden bridge, in what was considered the most expensive stunt of the silent film era.
The Sunday screening of The General will again be accompanied by musician Matt Marshall, who teaches film at Hollins University and at UVA, and who frequently composes and performs silent scores in the area. Live music is one of the joys of silent film screenings, and Marshall’s good sense and light touch are far preferable to the often plodding and chintzy scores on Kino’s DVD releases. The screening will include wine and food tastings and a raffle in the lobby at 3pm, a pre-film program at 4pm (including comments from film historians, an archival newsreel, and a Popeye cartoon short), with the feature screening at 5pm. The event is free.
Sunday 5/26 Free, 3pm. The Paramount Theater, 215 E. Main St., Downtown Mall. 979-1333.
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