The General ; Our Hospitality
by Buster Keaton, Kino Video, 75 minutes each . The General; Our Hospitality.
Buster Keaton was born a century ago next month, and his greatest
films are seventy years old. But how modern they seem, and how much more appealing their star’s stoicism than, say, Charlie Chaplin’s coy and cloying self-adoration. Kino Video is releasing scrupulously remastered versions of his movies. All of them are worth seeing, and several are wonderful, but Our Hospitality and The General are also interesting because both are historical exercises. The former, set in the morning time of steam railroading, begins with a long, hilariously arduous trip south behind a Best Friend of Charlestonish steam locomotive (the sign on a storefront in the 1830 Manhattan from which Keaton departs suggests his shrewd and funny eye for the American past: the enterprise deals in—or is owned by— FISH, SALT & PLASTER ).
The General is based on a real incident, the Civil War raid in which a group of Union spies under James Andrews hijacked a locomotive in Georgia and tried to bring it north. To make it, Keaton headed to Oregon, where he was able to gather up an amazing collection of old logging engines. These he dressed up artfully in 1860s cladding, then sent them careering after one another with a combination of boisterousness and beauty that is unique to this movie: one moment you’re shouting with laughter, the next you’re struck silent with the haunting conviction that this is how the result would have looked had Alexander Gardner gone forth equipped with a motion-picture camera instead of glass plates.