The Timelessness of Buster Keaton

When I think about “what work am I culturally/temporally farthest away from but still have a personal connection to,” there are a lot of things that come to mind. My dad, a former screenwriter and definite movie snob introduced us to old comedies when my brother and I were still in elementary school, and when 70% of the jokes sailed far over our heads.

One of our infamous family memories is when we were watching The Gold Rush, a 1925 silent Charlie Chaplin comedy. In one scene, Chaplin’s character meticulously prepares a meal for woman he’s enamored with and her friends, setting up the table just right and anxiously checking the clock. Of course, in some fun dramatic irony, the audience knows that she is not coming, and never intended to.

Watching as an 8-year-old, the tragedy of this scene absolutely destroyed me. I ran upstairs crying, asking my dad through tears why he had ever thought to show us something so upsetting. Dad couldn’t stop laughing. Ah, childhood.

But one family favorite I loved at the same age was The General, a Buster Keaton film. Keaton plays a train engineer rejected from the confederate army, and determined to win over his love, who of course, believes he refused to enlist and refuses to see him until he joins to the army. It’s an action-adventure flick and a comedy, packed with some of Keaton’s most impressive stunts, and one of the most expensive shots of the time where Keaton crashes a locomotive into a river.

Even though it’s a silent movie, and set during the Civil War (and from the perspective of a confederate), the movie has remained one of my favorites since childhood. Keaton’s physical comedy is just hilarious, and understandable to all ages. And the stunts are breathtaking. If you ever have 75 minutes to spare, The General is a good way to spend them.

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