The General: Review
Nowadays when people think of silent films the first, and too often only, peculiarity that usually comes to mind are the comedies of Charlie Chaplin. While Chaplin was a deservedly huge star in his time, he was not the only comedic icon of his era. Actors such as Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton shared in Chaplin's glory, and often used each other’s work as inspiration to try and top each other's gags and stunts. But the king of outrageous stunts is certainly Keaton. Nothing tops the finale of Keaton's 1928 film Steamboat Bill Jr. And yet, it is The General from 1926 that stands as his most lauded movie. It has a certain sense of time, place, and speed that greatly benefits the film. And the reality that comes with silent era effects has not dated the film, but rather has aided the film in aging gracefully, allowing modern audiences to enjoy the movie with relatively light rose tinted glasses.
Chaplin was the playful tramp, and Lloyd was the everyman, but Keaton stood out as the lonely soul. It was never easy for him to get the girl (but rest assured he always did), and his innocence in romantic affairs creates a very empathetic character. The character he routinely portrayed (the “Great Stone Face”) fit well into the Civil War setting of the film, and it is important to note the interesting decision to make his protagonists a member of the Confederate army while the Union is cast as the antagonists. Remember, the film was produced during a time when soldiers who served in the Civil War where still alive; indeed, it is possible that some of those veterans worked on The General in some capacity. So, this choice was no doubt made in an effort to make the clumsy, haphazard hero appealing to all audiences without offending potential ticket buyers in the Southern United States.
Keaton's character, Johnnie Gray, fits over his usual persona like a glove. And because this character is so quickly defined, the audience can get right to the laughs (something audiences and critics did not do upon the film's initial release). Johnnie is a locomotive engineer for the Confederate Army, and when his train engine, The General is stolen by Union soldiers with the love of his life on board it is only his accidental cunning that can save them. The lion's share of the movie is spent on a prolonged locomotive chase that never seems to overstay it's welcome. Many of the visual gags and stunts performed by Keaton were performed on an actual moving train, adding a layer of suspense to the comedy, encouraging the audience to care about the fates of those onscreen. Seeing Keaton jump from train car to train car full steam ahead with an entire battalion of soldiers rushing by on foot is a spectacular image, heightened by the lack of any filmmaking trickery; optical, paranormal, or otherwise.
The number of "iconic" shots in The General is staggering. The aforementioned marching battalion, the train passing through a burning bridge, and a battle of epic proportions over a raging river is all glorious and likely to stay with any viewer for a good long while, but not as long as the image of the sullen face of Buster Keaton. It is in through this face that the audience understands the character of Johnnie, and all other Keaton roles. To call his on screen demeanor a shtick is to minimize what Keaton created: an iconic persona that has entertained and emotionally captured generations of moviegoers, and continues do so with no signs of slowing down.
The General will be screened in an all-new restoration at this year's TCM Classic Film Festival, which will be going on from April 25 to April 28, 2013 in the heart of of old Hollywood in Los Angeles, CA. If at all possible, I encourage you not to miss this rare opportunity to experience the film as it was originally intended – in a theater with live music. There’s really nothing like it, and TCM recreates this magic better than anybody. I hope to see you there!