Director: Buster Keaton
Starring: Buster Keaton, Marion Mack
So many others have said it before me, but who cares: the easiest gateway into silent cinema is through the comedies. Funny is funny, regardless of time. Drama ages, horror ages, but comedy – good comedy, that is – perseveres. The General is not only good comedy, it’s great comedy.
Southern rail engineer Johnnie Gray (Keaton) loves his train, the eponymous “General,” and his girl, Annabelle (Mack). After the eruption of the Civil War, Northern spies steal both Johnnie’s train and Annabelle, who was hiding in a storage car. Johnnie must follow them with another train, save the girl, and bring both of them – the girl and the General – home to the South, all while foiling the evil Northern army’s plans.
Keaton is my favorite of the silent comedians due to his “Old Stoneface” acting style. He was known for his stoicism in the face of outlandish situations, and that stoicism has served him well as time has gone by. He doesn’t mug for the cameras, and in any scene where he’s acting (versus wild athleticism) he underplays everything. There is a subtlety to his comedy. There are plenty of obvious jokes, sure, but also smaller, quieter gags that set Keaton apart from his contemporaries. All of this explains why I like Keaton in general, but not why I like Keaton in The General. (ha ha, catch what I did there? I’m so clever…) His Johnnie is so likeable, I just want to take him and hug him like a little teddy bear. Keaton plays Johnnie with a very strong bravado style. Johnnie doesn’t flinch at facing men taller and stronger than he is. From what I can tell, Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd weren’t exactly toweringly tall actors, and frequently their characters were the “wimps” who had to eventually fight the big bad bully. Typically, they are quaking in their shoes at the prospect of this. Not Johnnie. He’s headstrong, almost to the point of absurdity, but he never for a second doubts his abilities. I like that. A lot.
Apart from Keaton himself being wildly amusing, he is well matched with the Mack’s portrayal of Annabelle. Refreshingly, Annabelle is a damsel in distress who is not afraid to get her hands dirty. When Johnnie rescues her, she loads wood into the steam engine’s fire and, unbeknownst to Johnnie, even sets up an ingenious trap for the bad guys. She rarely just “sits there” (a pet peeve of mine), instead getting involved and helping out where she can. Additionally, all is not always rosy between Johnnie and Annabelle. He gets frustrated with her a few times over the course of her rescue, most amusingly when she tosses out a perfectly good piece of wood for the fire because it has a hole in it. Watch Keaton when he then hands her a tiny bit of kindling and she delicately places it in the stove. I almost fell off the couch laughing. It’s rather refreshing to see a romantic couple, let alone a silent film romantic couple, who get on each other’s nerves from time to time.
In terms of production, I don’t think you can really top this one. Every train sequence is a real train on real tracks. Famously, at the end of the film, a train crashes off a bridge into a river below. Yeah, that was real – no second take on that one, I bet. The army sequences are likewise impressive; there was no CGI back then to create a huge army digitally. When the entire Southern encampment rushes out to face the enemy, it’s 500 dudes in soldier uniforms and on horses. Essentially, Keaton assembled an actual army. More than that, Keaton – like Chaplin and Lloyd – had no stunt double. Everything he does as Johnnie is, well, real. I get tired watching him because he’s endlessly hopping up and down off the train, jumping over wood piles, chopping timber, or getting stuff off the tracks in front of him. It’s staggering, the amount of acrobatics he has in this film – all while pulling off a deftly comic performance.
Ultimately, though, The General still holds up extraordinarily well today because all of these things – the great performances, the fantastic stunts, and the very funny comedy – are all clearly linked to the central plot. The film never feels like a patchwork quilt, a mishmash of various great elements never quite synching together. Everything is focused squarely on furthering the narrative: save the train and the girl and bring them home. Sure, it’s a simple story, but it works. My problem with other silent comedies (Gold Rush comes to mind) is that they contain great comedic setpieces that would almost function better as stand-alone bits. Essentially, they feel like multiple comedy shorts loosely strung together with the faintest hint of a narrative thread connecting them. Not so in The General. It doesn’t lag, it doesn’t tire, it keeps going with great comedy pieces, all very clearly there in the service of the story. To be honest, I do find the parts of the plot where Johnnie is not actually on a train to be a little bit slower, but I feel like that’s nitpicking at a masterpiece. Keaton was a perfectionist, and it shows in how wonderfully and carefully he crafted this film.
So many silent films have been cut and reedited over the years that the issue of which version to watch is fairly standard. While The General doesn’t have different edits (that I know of), I would like to highly recommend the particular version I saw – the Kino International special 2-disc DVD set. First of all, the print is just gorgeous. It’s a tremendously clean image, and if you watch a lot of silents, you know that is hardly guaranteed. But the biggest reason I recommend this one is Carl Davis’ score. The other place where I am familiar with Davis’ work is the soundtrack for the BBC’s 1995 Colin Firth Pride & Prejudice. If you liked the music there, you’ll love it here. It’s a rich and varied score that sounds nothing like typical silent film piano tinkling, and absolutely charming music that never overpowers the film, instead complementing it extraordinarily well. This is also the version that is available, in full, on youtube.
I would easily recommend The General to be the first silent film someone sees. I would have them watch it, then after they’ve seen maybe another one or two dozen additional silent films, I’d have them see it again. The first time would be to prove to a possibly skeptic modern film lover that silents are entertaining; the second time would be to make the point that even amongst silents, The General stands above the rest. I recommend this because that’s essentially what I myself did. I watched this very early on in order to ease my way into silent films, but it wasn’t until I watched The General for a second time that I realized just how genius it is.
Arbitrary Rating: 10/10. It even made my husband laugh.