The General (1926, Clyde Bruckman, Buster Keaton; Cinematographers: Bert Haines, Devereau Jennings)
There are four tiers of movie comedies. The first tier is for those unforgivable monsters of comedy, films for which Dante, if he were alive to have ever witnessed Date Movie or the Police Academy sequels, would have gladly concocted a slew of new, abominable tortures. You can usually smell the morose void of these movies months away, and are well prepared to avoid them when they hit the multiplex.
The second tier is for the Wedding Crashers, the Tommy Boys, the Dreamworks animation projects, movies that are good for a distracting laugh on a Sunday morning when a nasty hangover is condemning you to the couch until three. There’s nothing particularly wrong with these movies, and everyone will have their own version of this list depending on tastes, but the key factor is, that the movies in tier two aim low, hit the low mark for which they aimed, and move on without any higher aspirations.
Then there is the third tier – movies so funny that you can watch them time and time again, with no diminishing returns. Wet Hot American Summer, Blazing Saddles, Hot Fuzz, and The Last Days of Disco are these movies for me. In these films, detail is paramount, and jokes are layered meticulously, one on top of the next, to reward those eager to take a second look. Tier three’s reigning television champion, Arrested Development, is a show of incredible longevity that offers viewers something fresh on each viewing. There’s no shame in being a tier three comedy.
Tier four is reserved for the greats. The Jacques Tati films, the Wes Anderson films, the best Pixar productions, the best Chaplin features, and, of course, The General. Tier four comedies are everything a tier three comedy is, but they make the leap into greatness with their humanity. Buster Keaton, and Clyde Bruckman, before alcoholism destroyed his life, crafted The General, a comedy often considered to be the apex of both filmmaker’s careers, as a movie that develops its protagonist (Keaton, an energetic train engineer named Gray) to be much more than just an oafish stumblebum of the Laurel and Hardy strain. Keaton’s Gray is intelligent, courageous, and compassionate, and The General finds its humor though audience identification, not disassociation. It’s not Gray, but the world around him that demands ridicule, as if the inherent folly of such a widespread catastrophe as war is too great to escape satirical scrutiny. During a cringe-inducing gag in which Gray must stuff his paramour, Annabelle (played by Marion Mack), into a sack to get her past a group of Union soldiers, the audience, understanding the couple’s well established fortitude, laughs only at the exasperating situation that has forced the two to take such preposterous measures, never at the couple itself.
The details may be nonsensical, but the emotion is real. Gray, who has been underestimated during a crucial point in his life, must prove that his love for Annabelle is so titanic, that he would chase down, and fight off an entire army for her. Grey is a benevolent romantic, and when he declares, during the film’s final scene, that his profession is “soldier,” it is with the proud demeanor of a man taking charge of his own greatness. He has overcome every hurdle thrown at him. Those serious about their film comedies would do well to use The General as a blueprint. They don’t come much more uplifting, or honest, than this.