Original release: January 17th, 1927
Running time: 107 minutes
Writers and directors: Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman
Cast: Buster Keaton, Marion Mack
My introduction to the world of silent-era movies came through the debut of Charlie Chaplin’s tramp character in Kid Auto Races at Venice and my initial foray into silent features was Chaplin too in City Lights. After that I saw Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill Jr but it wasn’t until a pretty stunning silent double-bill that my love of the genre really took hold.
First up was Fritz Lang’s glorious sc-fi, Metropolis, and that was followed by Keaton’s civil war comedy, The General. The latter probably just about remains my favourite silent era film at the moment although it is challenged by Lang’s epic, Murnau’s masterpiece Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans and my growing love for Harold Lloyd’s immense rom-com, Girl Shy.
The General sees Buster Keaton playing Johnny Gray, the driver of the train The General, in love with a girl, Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack). When he stops by to visit his southern belle, her father and brother are just heading off to enlist in the confederate army to fight the North and in order to keep his girl happy, Johnny goes off to enlist too.
He’s rejected, due to him being more important to the effort as a train engineer, but his girl and her family consider him a yellow-belly who ducked out of the recruitment line.
A year later when his train, which happens to be carrying Annabelle at the time, is hijacked by Northern spies and Johnny sets off on a mad chase to get it back – unaware that his love is trapped aboard. By the time he manages to reappropriate the train and inadvertently rescue his gal, they are behind enemy lines and he must turn and high-tail it back to safety the way he came as well as warn the Southern army of the dastardly war-winning scheme the Northern spies have hatched.
There are many things to love about The General; first and foremost for myself is just how funny it is. There are some moments of sublime visual comedy – a dejected Johnny sat on the coupling rod of a stationary train then being lifted into the air when the train begins to move is my personal favourite of these moments, there is also a very funny sniper sequence towards the end. We see a prime example of ‘incongruity-resolution theory’ at work when Johnny saves the train from derailing with a nice bit of unexpected and comedic improvisation using a sleeper 1.
What always makes me chuckle is Keaton’s performance. Much more so than Chaplin, I laugh at Keaton’s perpetually stony, perturbed and confused face. His ability to double-take is wonderful and aids in his constant comic bafflement at things happening to him throughout his trip in The General.
Of course it also helps that he is incredibly athletic and just seeing him leap about the train is a joy before you add in a wayward cannon aiming at his backside or the head of an axe flying off mid-chop.
Keaton was making films at the time that studios began to transition to feature length comedies (the early 1920s) and The General is also a great example of the shift towards a blend of narrative film-making and the wonderful way in which Keaton is particular was a master of making things work to both ends.
Keaton himself made it clear that he understood the need to move away from pure slapstick, to engrain narrative into scenes and that ‘Comic situations have taken the place of these veteran laugh getters’ such as exploding cigars and cream pies 2.
Jean-Patrick Lebel highlights how Keaton went about this when he describes the aforementioned cannon sequence and shows how Keaton maximised both the narrative and the humour of the piece to great effect 3 and Mark Cousins points out that the entire narrative set-up of The General is an elaborate comic tool as the audience becomes aware of what Keaton is doing and thus there is a sense of comedic anticipation.
For the first half of the film, he travels north to the thieves hideout and in the second, reunited with his girl, escapes south again on the locomotive. All the visual jokes and set-ups in the first section are repeated and amplified in the reverse order in the second half. 4
Through his inventive use of narrative and comedy, Keaton is able to keep the silent comedy compelling for its full run time whereas it is sometimes easier for audiences to admire silent comedy as opposed to being utterly engaged. In this film, the audience is utterly engaged whether it’s a desire to see how it all turns out, or just in the plain hope that at some point, something will go right for out poor protagonist Johnny. This was something that was a big deal for me when I first saw it as I certainly felt more admiration for the silent films I’d seen than actual enjoyment; The General changed that completely.
(1) Nielsen, Jakob Isak (2008) “There’s Something About Comedy Theory”, P.O.V. 26, (2008)
(2) Neale, Stephen & Krutni, Frank (1990) Popular Film and Television Comedy, Routledge, London, p. 120
(3) Lebel, Jean-Patrick (1967) Buster Keaton, trans. P.D. Stovin, A. Zwemmer Limited, London, pp. 122–3
(4) Cousins, Mark (2004) The Story of Film, BCA, Burton-on-Trent, pp.76-77
(5) Cousins, Mark (2004) p.77
There is also a lot to be said for the sheer spectacle of the film. As with the amazing storm sequence in Steamboat Bill Jr, you know that Buster Keaton is performing every stunt himself and you know that he is on a real train when he is doing it. This is amplified when there is a locomotive crash towards the end of the film which is ‘the best example of what could be called “the sublime” in 1920s cinema, that feeling of awe, verging on terror, engendered by the scale of the film’s production values.’ 5
Aside from all that though, for me it’s all about the funny. If today’s comedy films, stunts and actors were half as funny as Buster Keaton, I’d probably be watching a lot more comedy. As it is, I’m more likely to stick The General on again.
Ben has had a keen love of moving images since his childhood but after leaving school he fell truly in love with films. His passion manifests itself in his consumption of movies (watching films from all around the globe and from any period of the medium’s history with equal gusto), the enjoyment he derives from reading, talking and writing about cinema and being behind the camera himself having completed his first co-directed short film in mid-2011.
His favourite films include things as diverse as The Third Man, In The Mood For Love, Badlands, 3 Iron, Casablanca, Ran and Grizzly Man to name but a few.