I’ve seen and reviewed a number of Buster Keaton’s films, and I felt it was time I finally looked up what is probably his most famous and most critically acclaimed film, 1926’s The General. Though the film is in the public domain, and thus available from many sources, I decided to check out the Kino restoration. This was a wise decision; the difference in quality from a professional restoration is immediately apparent (at least to somebody who has watched a number of public domain films). The image is crystal clear, and the music selected to go with it was spot-on all the way through. (Being a silent film, it would originally have had in-house accompaniment. Professional restorations typically add music to the video itself; amateur restorations are less consistent about this).
And as for the movie itself? Pure brilliance.
Keaton stars as Johnnie Gray, a young train engineer living in the South at the onset of the United States Civil War. When Fort Sumter is attacked by the Union army, the people of his town realize that the war has come to their home. In order to impress his girlfriend Annabelle (Marion Mack), Johnnie goes to enlist… but is rejected due to his job as an engineer. The enlistment officers believe he will be of more use to the Confederacy where he is. What’s worse, Annabelle’s father and brothers don’t see him enter the enlistment office, so they believe he chose not to enlist. But when a Union general (Keaton’s own father, Joe Keaton) decides to hijack the train in order to use it for sabotage, while Annabelle is on board no less, Johnnie gets his chance to prove his bravery by grabbing another train engine and taking after them.
Not only is “train hijacking” a larger subgenre of film than one might expect, it’s also one of the older ones.
What follows is a mix of adventure and comedy, and both work in spades. Even if Keaton had decided to play it straight, The General would have made for an entertaining chase movie with perils and pitfalls to beset its protagonist. But coupled with Keaton’s trademark slapstick, it becomes both exciting and hilarious at the same time. Notably, unlike many of Keaton’s characters, Johnnie Gray isn’t a complete incompetent — in fact, he’s shown to be very capable as an engineer. The slapstick comes from his inexperience at soldiering and — largely — through his sheer bad luck coupled with active opposition from the Union soldiers. The result is that while Keaton gets his usual laughs from bumbling around, he maintains the credibility of the character as a rescuing hero by showing that when it comes to what he knows, he really is valuable in his position.
Also helping with the comic antics is that Keaton again shows his willingness to share the spotlight. In many silent film comedies, the lead comic is aware that what keeps the audience watching are the jokes and stunts, and so they will ensure they get all the gags. If someone is going to be the victim of slapstick, it’s going to be the star. And films from the silent era in general are particularly prone to revering the female lead to such an extent that she is held sacrosanct from all the hijinks. Neither applies here. Marion Mack’s role isn’t as active as Keaton’s, but she still ends up on the receiving end of comic misfortune enough to get her share of the laughs. Keaton’s the star of the comedy, but the comedy isn’t limited to Keaton. By being willing to make her the butt of the joke, Keaton shows that he respects his female co-star as an actress and not just a pretty face.
It’s difficult to imagine Charlie Chaplin doing this to any of his co-stars, let alone to Edna Purviance.
The humor comes fast and furious in The General, with occasional verbal wit through the title cards, and when there isn’t a visual gag on screen, there’s always action going on. There are few, if any, slow moments in the film. And in addition to the humor and action, the story itself works well. It’s not a complicated tale, but it’s as serviceable today as it was 87 years ago. Bring it all together, and The General holds up as well nearly a century after its creation.