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The General

October 4, 2010

To celebrate Buster Keaton’s 115th birthday,
1001: A Screen Odyssey presents:

~

32. The General
Directed by Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton
USA, 1927

IMDB | allmovie

Reviewed by Rachel
Umpteenth viewing

Description:

Engineer Johnnie Gray has two loves; his girl and his engine. When Union soldiers steal his train, The General, Johnnie steals another train and pursues them. It becomes even more personal when he realises they have also captured his love, Annabelle Lee. Johnnie must save her and take control of his engine as well as warn the Confederate army of the coming danger.

Essential Scene:

Johnnie Gray (Buster Keaton) and Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack) are in the middle of a train chase with the enemy. Annabelle Lee tries to be helpful by putting wood into the engine’s fire. She picks up a large piece of wood but, seeing it has a hole in it, discards it. Johnnie looks at her with disbelief.

Looking for something else to do, Annabelle picks up a broom and starts to sweep up. As the situation doesn‘t really call for housekeeping, when Johnnie sees what she’s doing he snatches the broom from her and tells her to keep on stoking the fire.

Annabelle does as she’s told, picking up measly piece of wood and shoving it into the fire. She gestures to say her task is done. Johnnie picks up an even smaller piece of wood, the size of a cigarette. He hands it to her to see if she would be stupid enough to put this in the fire too. Of course, she is and she does. She nods and smiles. In sheer exasperation, Johnnie puts his hands around her neck and shakes her, but then kisses her.

According to Marion Mack, this scene was improvised.

Thoughts:

There are a handful of films that I’ve seen in my life have received a literal open-mouthed reaction from me. The General was one of them. It has to be, hands down, one of the most visually stunning films in existence.

In Keaton’s hands, everything comes to life. A huge steam engine becomes a living, breathing thing that supplies endless gags. The Civil War era is there before your eyes. There are explosions, real stunts and many, many extras. In the middle of all this is the hauntingly beautiful Keaton who is never deterred from the task at hand.

One thing I’ve always loved about The General is the character of the leading lady Annabelle Lee, played by Marion Mack. She can be brilliant, but she can also incredibly hopeless. But the great thing about her is that for the second half of the film she gets down and dirty in helping Johnnie. She gets dripping wet, muddy, and probably gets splinters from putting all that wood in the engine’s fire. Keaton once said (I can’t find the direct quote so I paraphrase) that he had had enough of seeing films in which the Southern Belles endure a six hour wagon ride and they step out with beautiful make up and not a mark on them. He made sure he roughed up his Southern Belle.

For an actor and director from an era that was sometimes prone to overdoing everything, Keaton’s subtlety in both comedy and drama was remarkable. He didn’t overact, he didn’t beg for you to feel any particular emotion, and he didn’t talk down to his audience. Keaton’s very modern approach makes The General one of the perfect introductions to the world of silent cinema.

Fascinating Fact:

Keaton and Marion Mack didn’t get off to the best start, although they were friends afterwards. Keaton, a keen practical joker, told some of his crew to hold Mack upside down over a cake of ice. As she had just spent an hour putting on her make up and costume, she wasn’t amused. When Mack found out it was Keaton’s idea, she punched him in the eye. Didn’t stop him from playing more pranks, though…

Reviewed by Ally
Umpteenth viewing

Essential Scene:

Whilst chasing the train thieves, Johnnie happens upon a cannon handily mounted on a small carriage. He attaches it to the train, then continues to chase his precious General.

When the General is in sight, Johnnie loads the cannon using just a pinch of gunpowder. He scrambles over the tender and back to the driver’s compartment, only for the cannonball to arch directly into it, landing at his feet. He rolls the cannonball out of the cab, then climbs over the back to the cannon. As he begins loading the cannon again, the first canonball is seen to explode by the tracks in the distance.

Johnnie finishes reloading the cannon, this time throwing caution to the wind and putting in all the gunpowder — including the drum. As he jumps the gap between the cannon and the tender, he catches his foot in the coupler. He shakes his foot free, disconnecting the cannon’s carriage from the train in the process.

The momentum keeps the carriage travelling close behind. The loose coupler hangs down onto the tracks, catching the sleepers and causing the cart to vibrate. The shaking cannon gradually droops until it points directly at Johnnie. And as he tries to climb over the tender to safety, he finds his foot entangled in a chain.

Just what he needs!

Thoughts:

The paradox of Buster Keaton is that, while his deadpan screen persona is considered modern compared to many of his contemporaries, his best films could only work in the silent era. If The General was a talkie, holy mackerel would it be noisy! Nothing but chugging steam engines, raging battles, collapsing bridges and presumably lots of shouting. As a silent film, it’s visually spectacular without being aurally obnoxious. In fact it’s quite beautiful.

Oh, and it’s really funny. From low-key moments of human interaction to inanimate objects behaving in physically plausible but absurd ways, Buster Keaton’s gift for comedy is evident throughout. But, being visual comedy in the purest sense, writing about it is “like dancing about architecture.”

The General is available on region-free blu-ray from Kino. The film is also in the public domain and can be downloaded free of charge from Archive.org.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. October 4, 2010 3:40 pm

    I went to see this at the Tramway in Glasgow many moons ago as the first part of a double bill with Nosferatu. Strange pairing.
    I was not a Buster Keaton fan at all until I saw this remarkable film. And with a live musical accompaniment it was very special. Is there a part where he actually hurls enormous railway sleepers off the track one by one while running at breakneck speed, or have I misremembered that, George Bush style? Anyway, his death-defying stunts are right up there with Harold Lloyd, and kind of put today’s overblown special-effects fests in the shade.

    • October 4, 2010 4:14 pm

      I’d love to see both those films on the big screen with live accompaniment but, as you say, not necessarily on the same evening.

      There’s a bit where he sits on the front of the train and uses one railway sleeper to knock another off the tracks, that sounds to me like what you’re thinking of.

      The mindboggling thing about Harold Lloyd is that he was missing a thumb (after a mishap with what he *thought* was a prop bomb). He did all that climbing in Safety Last with a thumbless hand!

      • October 4, 2010 8:50 pm

        Yes, that’s what I’m thinking of! Outstanding stuff.

        And when I was a little girl, they used to show Harold Lloyd films on BBC2 on Friday nights at 6 – those were the days when you used to get things like that on ‘primetime’ TV. NB That was in the 80s, not the 50s! ;)

        Safety Last – and all for real, hundreds of feet above the ground – what a hero!

        These people really pushed the boundaries, they were heroic as well as touchingly funny (Chaplin excepted in my opinion).

  2. Diane permalink
    October 4, 2010 3:44 pm

    Happy Birthday Buster. This is my all time favorite film… ever. It’s wonderful on so many levels. A solid story based on a true event with characters to love and funny scenes to move the plot along. Very few title cards are used or needed. The photography is spectacular and Buster is, well, wonderful.

    You mentioned my favorite scene that builds beautifully with Annabelle Lee ‘helping’ and Johnnie ending up in total exasperation, but still can’t help loving her, and ends with an intense kiss and a fervent return to engineering the train. What’s heartbreaking is that this masterpiece was not well received when it was first released. Hard to imagine that, but sad when you know Buster poured his heart and soul into this one. At least it will always be here for generations to discover and savor.

    For any of the uninformed that still believe silent film comedy is only pie-in-the-face and kick-in-the-pants, it’s essential to see this film and see the subtleness, intelligence and modern touches Buster presented that today’s audiences can relate to.

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