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Holyrood or Bust(er) #2: Trains, boats and air balloons

To celebrate TCM’s month-long screening of Buster Keaton films every Sunday in October, I’ll be following along from the UK through the week with the aid of various DVDs, Twitter and this blog. This post will remain at the top of the blog until the next Sunday.

This first Holyrood or Bust(er) post will cover the initial 14 films being screened on TCM on Sunday 2 October 2011, all grouped under the banner of A Genius on the Move: The General, Cops, Our Hospitality, The Love Nest, The Navigator, The Boat and The Goat, The Play House, The Scarecrow, The Electric House, The Balloonatic, The Paleface, Convict 13 and Speak Easily.

The General (1927)

Across the pond they’ll be settling down to The General on TV on Sunday evening at 8pm. Here in Edinburgh I had to go for an early start thanks to other commitments tonight, and if I did try to match the outpouring on Twitter at 8pm US time it would be around 4am in the morning here. I’m devoted but not that devoted.

I’m using the 2005 Cinema Club edition of The General, a two disc set stuffed with extras and offering two scores for the film, a 1995 Robert Israel version and a more recent Joe Hisaishi track, which I went for (listen to an excerpt here).

Written and directed by Clyde Bruckman, The General takes us back to 1861 and casts Buster as locomotive driver (The General of the title), Johnnie Gray, heading to see his sweetheart, Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack), in Georgia. Sporting longer hair than we’re used to in his earlier films (it suits him), Buster is soon caught up in the events of the Civil War, as Annabelle’s brother decides to enlist with the Confederate Army and Johnnie is expected to follow suit.

Although he’s not a coward, there’s no real sign that Johnnie wants to fight and potentially die for his country, preferring to spend his time with his beloved Annabelle and his train. Aware that not enlisting won’t be popular with his girl but being too important to the Confederate railway, Johnnie finds himself shunned and left to continue his work minus Annabelle.

It’s here that the plot really kicks in (well, just after a lovely scene of Buster sitting on the side of the train and being taken away down the tracks) as we skip forward 12 months, discover that Union soldiers are planning to play dirty and watch as Johnnie becomes the perfect anti-hero.

For anyone used to seeing Buster in his short films, finding him in a feature film, on location in the woods of Oregon and taking control of a full size locomotive can be a shock to the system. Of course it’s only right that he’s given such a broad canvas to work against, the expanded running time reflecting the actor’s increased status in the silent film arena.

With a hefty budget of $400,000, there was almost nothing Buster’s imagination couldn’t afford and the action sequences prove that he was revelling in the freedom. It seems that audiences and critics of the period weren’t quite as ready as Buster for The General and its poor performance at the box office proved he was ahead of his time once again.

Thankfully Buster and Bruckman left us with a film that is both epic and small-scale. Epic in that the various explosions, action sequences and train wrecks work perfectly on the big screen but small-scale in that close-ups of Buster’s facial expressions (don’t believe the Old Stoneface moniker) and glances (check out the scene beside the cannon near the end when Buster looks around him trying to work out how the soldiers are being shot) keeping the viewer emotionally invested in Johnnie’s plight.

An excellent start to this month’s Buster-fest, the smaller scale Cops from 1922 is up next.

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