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The General

Buster Keaton (1895 – 1966) was one of the clown princes of the silent screen, and did his best work when he was in complete control of his projects; like Harry Langdon, Charlie Chaplin or Harold Lloyd, Keaton was most at home in silent films, and his classic civil war comedy The General (1926) is one of the masterpieces of the silent era, and an unexpectedly lavish production, as witness the battle sequences near the end of the film, as well as the rather spectacular bridge collapse — which you should see for yourself.

When sound came, Keaton found difficulty adapting, and wound up at MGM, his former distributors, as just another contract employee, teamed with Jimmy Durante for a series of comedies that he had little or no artistic control over, and which really had nothing to do with his actual skills as a performer.

Alcoholism compounded Keaton’s problems, and as the 1930s and 40s rolled past, Keaton was almost forgotten, relegated to bit parts in inconsequential films. In 1956, he stopped drinking; in the same year, he received a sizable check for the rights to his life story, which was produced in 1957 with Donald O’Connor as The Buster Keaton Story, directed by Sidney Sheldon. With the money from this project, Keaton bought a house, and settled down to what he imagined would be his retirement.

But in the 60s, his great silent films of the 1920s were revived for college audiences to universal acclaim, and he spent his last years working in commercials, experimental cinema (Samuel Beckett’s Film, directed by Alan Schneider, which Keaton apparently had little affection for), and his last major project, Richard Lester’s epic comedy A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966). He also appeared in numerous Beach Party films for American-International Pictures as a supporting character, mainly because director William Asher was such a fan of Keaton’s work. The General was a commercial and critical failure when first released; now it’s universally considered one of the greatest of Keaton’s films, and by many, one of the greatest films of all time.

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About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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