Mr. Keaton is back…
The General is one of Buster Keaton’s most iconic films. Released in 1927, it was mostly filmed in Oregon with great attention to detail, using real Civil War-era locomotives. Keaton directed, produced, and starred in the movie, which didn’t have the impact he was hoping for on its first release.
The story begins in 1861. Johnnie Gray (Buster Keaton) is a train engineer in his small Southern town. In between train runs he romances Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack) and the kids of the town follow him around like ducklings.
When the war breaks out, Johnnie heads to the recruiting office to enlist, but he gets turned down because his job is essential. So he tries again with his hat down and pretends to be a bartender. Nothing. After a bit more slouching around, Johnnie tries stealing another guy’s enlistment papers. Still no dice. Johnnie’s boss hustles him out of the office and back to the train.
Annabelle’s dad and brother see Johnnie on his way out and assume Johnnie never tried to get in the Army. He didn’t even stand in line. Annabelle is so incensed that she tells Johnnie she won’t speak to him again until he’s in uniform.
Things are pretty icy until Annabelle decides to ride Johnnie’s train, which, as luck would have it, is hijacked by a bunch of rogue Northerners who want to disrupt the South’s supply lines. Poor Annabelle is rifling through her luggage in the baggage car and gets taken hostage because the bad guys can’t let her go. She might talk, natch.
Johnnie lights out to rescue his ladylove and the train and there are a couple of pretty explosive confrontations between he and the Northerners. Annabelle is overjoyed and things are looking up for Johnnie. Now if only he could figure out how to kiss her while asserting his newfound street cred to an adoring public.
So why is The General worth watching? Here are a few reasons:
I don’t want to give too many spoilers, but the film is enjoyable from beginning to end. Even though some of the plot devices might seem like they’ve been done to death in the years since, like a sneezy Johnnie getting stuck under a dining room table while the baddies plan their next move, the movie is still a ride. Nothing is taken too seriously, not even the Civil War. The conflict between the Union and the Confederacy might as well be a clash between A’s and Giants fans.
Follow the bouncing stakes.
There’s a lot of piling on of suspense and comedy in The General. It’s not to an Indiana Jones level of tension, but things do keep happening. One of the best examples of this is when Johnnie loads and fires a cannon at the thieves. The first volley comes off pretty impressively, but the second time around the cannon accidentally points straight ahead. Johnnie keeps loading the cannon as if nothing is amiss, but then he dawns on him that he might want to get away.
On a side note, this particular cannon had a little too much oomph for the scene, so Keaton had to be really careful how he loaded the gunpowder, and the film shows him carefully measuring it out in little handfuls.
The final battle had some unintended consequences as well: There were so many explosions and sparks flying that it started a forest fire.
The film looks spot-on Victorian.
The Victorian Era and the Civil War weren’t all that far in the rear view mirror in 1926, so the memories (and the furniture) are genuine. I got a kick out of Annabelle’s parlor, where she has a center table and whatnot shelf that are identical to pieces we have in the Bernhard Museum, although there’s a severe absence of tchotchkes. Then again, it’s a movie set that was probably tossed together quickly, so clutter was not a high priority.
The costumes aren’t too shabby, either–Annabelle’s dress and underthings are meticulously accurate, as is the menswear. I wouldn’t be surprised if they used real Victorian clothes for this movie, or at least worked from original patterns.
Whoever says silent films were crudely made probably hasn’t seen The General. Seriously. The camera never stops moving in this film, and a lot of scenes play out with very few cuts, particularly the train sequences, which are largely long tracking shots. One of the most impressive bits involves following Johnny as he crawls from one end of a train to the other, ending up on the cattle prod.
Buster Keaton, of course.
We’re here because the guy was amazing. For all Keaton is famously known as the Great Stone Face, he isn’t, really. He emotes but it’s very understated. The only thing he doesn’t do is smile. Keaton gives a wonderful performance here. His chemistry with Marion Mack is very sweet; he comes across as shy but gentlemanly, and it’s fun to see him thrust into the role of rescuing the damsel in distress.
Keaton does all his own stunts in the film and he’s a marvel. He not only climbs around the trains as they careen down the tracks, but he swings and jumps from car to car. He’s basically Tom Cruise before Tom Cruise that way, except I’m guessing Tom wouldn’t be caught dead in a porkpie hat.
The General is not without its weak spots. During the first battle on the train, Annabelle is apparently still in the baggage car, although we’d never know it, since she’s not seen for a good twenty minutes. She always seems to disappear when things are at their most exciting. Although, in fairness, there wouldn’t be much to see beyond Annabelle possibly bouncing around the car and looking terrified.
The film was not well-received when it first hit theaters. Moviegoers were either confused or hostile about what Keaton was trying to achieve, and the film flopped at the box office. A lot of people thought Keaton was playing the Civil War for laughs and found it in poor taste. It wasn’t until over thirty years later that the film suddenly got crazy popular, and it’s been a fixture of Keaton fests ever since.
A big key with any film is finding a good print, and unfortunately my local library’s copy of The General is unrestored and features bouncy thirties-era Muzak. However, it wasn’t annoying enough to obscure the classic that is one of Buster Keaton’s most-loved works.
For more of the legendary Buster Keaton, please see Lea at Silent-ology. Thanks for hosting, Lea–this is always fun! Thanks for reading, all…
~Purchases made via Amazon Affiliate links found on this site help support Taking Up Room at no extra cost to you.~
Smith, Imogen Sarah. Buster Keaton: The Persistence of Comedy. Chicago: Gambit Publishing, 2008.