The General (1926)
Starring Buster Keaton, Marion Mack, Glen Cavender, Jim Farley, Frederick Vroom, Charles Henry Smith, Frank Barnes, Joe Keaton, Mike Donlin, Tom Nawn
Directed by Clyde Bruckman & Buster Keaton
Expectations: High, I’ve seen this multiple times over the years.
Buster Keaton’s The General is one of the most well-known and highly regarded films of the silent era. It stands to reason why I, a self-respecting student of film, should love this film, but I did not come upon this movie in some Film History course or happen upon it in a video store for greats from film’s past. No, I found The General, and Buster Keaton, through other means all together. It was all because of Jackie Chan.
In 1996, Jackie Chan’s Rumble in the Bronx saw a wide US release. It was a milestone for Jackie, finally getting one of his incredible Hong Kong films into US cinemas. I was fourteen at the time and couldn’t believe my eyes. I had never witnessed anything quite like it and I quickly became a huge fan, devouring every new film as soon as it was released. What drew me into his films was his wonderful sense of physical comedy and his dedication to performing all these wild, outlandish stunts himself. At some point, and I don’t remember how, I found out that the Chan style I had come to love was actually building and honoring the legend of a silent film star known as Buster Keaton. My obsessive mind could not sit still until I had investigated this for myself! The General was the first work of Keaton’s I saw and it left an immediate impact. This can easily be seen as the genesis of my ever-deepening love of classic films, although many seeds had been sown throughout my youth before this point.
In any case, The General hit me like a freight train carrying a ton of bricks. A movie from 1926 has no business being this enjoyable, I thought. I was stunned. From that point forward, there was no turning back for me. I was a true film lover. I’ve seen The General numerous times since and loved it just as much every time. So when JP told me I won the Oscar contest, I scoured my wishlists for something unexpected, something fitting, something that I would get a lot of enjoyment out of and I decided on The General. I hadn’t seen it in at least five years, so it seemed like a good time to revisit as well.
I can honestly say that The General still holds up. It’s a true masterpiece of Keaton’s filmography and of silent film in general. The story concerns railroad engineer Johnny Gray (Buster Keaton) who has two loves, his engine (The General) and his girlfriend. When the Civil War breaks out he tries to enlist but is turned down. His girlfriend shuns him and says she doesn’t care to see him until he’s in uniform. Poor Buster. Northern spies steal the General (and Buster’s girlfriend along with it) and Buster can’t let that go unchecked, so he hops into another engine and the chase begins! Obviously the story here isn’t as developed and nuanced as some modern films, but those films have the benefits of sound and eighty years of film conventions to fall back on. The General has neither and yet will continue to be well-regarded as far as the eye can see.
Some may ask why this is. How can a silent film made eighty-four years ago still be entertaining? The only logical answer is Buster Keaton himself. His charismatic on-screen presence and his wonderful comic timing inform every aspect of the filmmaking process, taking a beautifully shot film into the stratosphere. His acting is spot-on for what you’d want in a silent comedy and everyone else in the production does a great job as well. To call The General a “silent comedy” though, is something of a misnomer. At first glance it is more of a prototype action film, featuring a number of high-tension chase sequences involving a couple of trains. The chase in and of itself was nothing new to the silent comedy though, in fact they were key to Keaton’s (and many others) success in short films. It is important to note though that this was before the days of scale models and what we consider special FX, so when you see two trains chasing each other, it’s actually two trains chasing each other. There is a power to watching this reality that cannot be duplicated in the modern action film. With The General, Keaton completely deconstructs the silent comedy and then builds it back up into an action/comedy hybrid… just like Jackie Chan would do with action films sixty years later.
That all being said, I think I finally get why Chaplin is regarded as the better filmmaker. As much as I love Keaton and The General, Chaplin’s best works such as The Kid or Modern Times have a resonant dramatic core that is only hinted at in The General. This doesn’t settle the age-old Chaplin vs. Keaton argument though, as each comedian and filmmaker sought to portray differing viewpoints on life. Where Chaplin’s films are more focused on the small moments, Keaton’s are more exaggerated and outwardly funny. The two giants sought to stimulate different sections of the mind. Both succeeded handily, but tonight’s viewing of The General ultimately showed me that Chaplin’s films generally come out on top for a reason, as much as it pains me to say it.
If you’ve never seen Buster Keaton in action, or perhaps if you’ve never seen a silent film at all, The General is a fantastic place to jump on board. Keaton’s comedic timing, coupled with beautiful cinematography and a genuine Civil War feel create a masterful film that stands the test of time. Highly recommended.