"The General" **** (out of ****)
Buster Keaton helps defend the honor of the ol' South and win a major battle during the Civil War in the silent comedy classic, "The General" (1926).
Watching "The General" again recently I was struck by many things which I may not have noticed over the years or simply didn't remember about the movie, as it had been years since I last watched this comedy treasure.
Early on in the movie there are a few, subtle, moments in the movie which are typical Buster Keaton moments and help explain his character, not only in this movie, but the comedy persona he created for all of his silent comedies.
It is one of the first sequences in the movie. We meet Johnnie Gray (Keaton) engineer for the Western & Atlantic Railroad, who we are told only has two loves in his life. One is his locomotive, called The General, and the other is the girl in his life, Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack).
After a day's work Johnnie rushes to meet Annabelle. What Johnnie doesn't know is two young boys have been following him as well as Annabelle. Johnnie keeps walking towards Annabelle's home, knocks on the door, and as he waits for an answer, turns around to notice the crowd behind him. What does he do when he sees them? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. No shocked expression. No embarrassing moment. No pratfall. No double take. He simply acknowledges Annabelle with a nod of the head and they walk inside the house together.
What is so characteristic of the moment is it illustrates why Keaton's comedy character was referred to as "the great stone face". Nothing phased him. His expression doesn't really change when you watch him. Imagine Stan Laurel in this sequence or Harold Lloyd. Surely they would have given an exaggerated reaction. But not Keaton. Less is more with Keaton.
Within this same scene Johnnie notices the two young boys have followed him into Annabelle's home. Without saying a word to the boys or Annabelle, Johnnie casually stands up, walks to pick up his hat, heads towards the door, the two young boys stand in front of him, Johnnie opens the door, the young boys proceed to walk out, Johnnie closes the door and walks back towards Annabelle.
This demonstrates how Keaton's characters are always thinking. The mind is constantly at work. Life throw obstacles at "the great stone face" but nothing deters him. He immediately assesses the situation and forms a plan of action right before the audiences' eyes, in an instant. Keaton doesn't draw out these moments showing us a long thought process with the character meticulously planning every detail. The viewer just watches the plan unfold and tries to keep up with "the great stone face".
What is also interesting watching "The General" is the movie really never wants to be more than an action / comedy. The film, co-written and directed by Clyde Bruckman and Keaton, never goes in for sentimentality or romance. Try to say the same about a Charlie Chaplin movie. Of course that doesn't mean Keaton's approach is better but it clearly distinguishes the different approach to storytelling both men had. Could you tell this story with sentimental and romantic scenes? Sure.
Take for example a sequence when Johnnie learns the Civil War is inevitable. Annabelle's brother (Frank Barnes) and her father (Charles Smith) quickly decide to enlist. Feeling pressure from the family, especially Annabelle, Johnnie agrees to as well. But, when he goes to the recruiting office he is denied. It is felt Johnnie could better serve the South as an engineer than a soldier. Annabelle's brother and father don't know Johnnie was rejected and think he is simply a coward, "a disgrace to the South" they tell Annabelle. She feels letdown and tells Johnnie never to speak to her again until he is in uniform.
In this moment Johnnie feels rejected. Here would be a perfect opportunity for some sentimentality. Johnnie's heart has been broken. He sits on the side rod of a train by the wheel. He is lost in his thoughts. Suddenly the train begins to slowly move with Johnnie still on the side rod as he begins to ride up and down and quickly realizes what is going on. Poof! A moment of self-reflection turns into a sight gag.
A year passes. Johnnie and Annabelle have not spoken to one another. Johnnie still works as an engineer. We learn of a plan the North has devised to steal The General and ambush the South in a surprise attack. Annabelle will be on the train this same day as she is going to visit her father, who has been wounded in the war. She finds herself in the wrong place at the the wrong time and is held prisoner by the North.
At this point all Johnnie knows is someone has stolen his train after it has made a stop. He attempts to chase it and finds himself in an army encampment. It is here he learns Annabelle is being held hostage. He now must rescue her, the train and warn the Southern army of the North's plan.
Here once again is an opportunity for the movie to engage in some romantic scenes with a nice kiss and make-up scene between Johnnie and Annabelle. But who has time for that!
At every opportunity when the movie can divert its attention to more dramatic or romantic scenes the movie instinctively settles on action sequences. Buster Keaton was really ahead of the curve. Look how many buddy action / comedies we get today!
Although I guess that could be the one flaw someone may find with "The General". The movie feels like one long action sequence. It has a very simple plot and spends a lot of its time showing trains chasing after each other. For the majority of the movie Johnnie is seen on a train. This was actually the criticism most movie critics (sheep) had with the movie during its original release.
I find these moments work though as it allows Keaton to show good visual gags. Each train tries to slow down the other by throw items on the train tracks or causing damage to them. The humor comes from how Johnnie finds ways the over come these obstacles. Again, we see that mind always at work. These sequences also contain some thrills. We even see a train collapse when traveling over a bridge!
If we chose to think about it long enough, we can also find a message about masculinity here. Annabelle is disappointed when Johnnie isn't enlisted. He isn't a man. Where is his bravery? His sense of honor? His patriotic sentiment? Annabelle won't even speak to him. But, Annabelle soon changes her mind when Johnnie rescues her. Now he has committed a heroic act. Now he is a man.
The movie was inspired by a real incident during the Civil War known as The Great Locomotive Chase (or Andrews' Raid) which happened on the Western & Atlantic Railroad in April of 1862. The movie used a memoir written by the soldier William Pittenger as inspiration.
Upon its initial release "The General" was a commercial and critical flop and ranked among Keaton's worst performing movies at the box-office. Time has been on the movie's side however as now it is considered not only Buster Keaton's best movie but some even rank it as one of the all-time greatest silent movies ever made. The movie also appeared on AFI's updated 100 greatest movies list in 2007.
I'm honestly not sure if I would call this Keaton's greatest film or his most typical. I am going through a re-evaluation process with Keaton. It has been so many years since I have watched his comedies. In some cases it has been 15 years. Recently I have re-watched "Seven Chances" (1925) and "Go West" (1925) and my reaction was not as I thought it would be. Unfortunately, of the silent comedians, Keaton is the one that has been neglected by me. I have only previously written about "Sherlock, Jr." (1924).
Watching Keaton again though I find some similarity in his character and Chaplin's Tramp. Both men are loners. In "Go West" Keaton's character is called "Friendless". Both men want to be active participants in society. Chaplin though is shunned because of his looks. Keaton makes a greater effort. Keaton also has more thrills in his movies and displays a greater athletic ability. Still, sometimes it is difficult for me to completely warm up to "the great stone face". I consider myself a Chaplin man. I prefer Chaplin's sense of storytelling. There is more involvement with his characters.
However, I am looking forward to re-examining the work of Keaton and while I am on the fence if this is Keaton's best movie it is nonetheless a movie people should watch, especially those that are not familiar with Buster Keaton.