Review: The General

For a while now, I’ve been wondering what to do on Wednesdays. As you noticed (you being both of you that read this blog regularly), Wednesday is a bit of a random day. It’s not easy to come up with random things on a weekly basis. For me at least. So I figured, why not do a classic movie article/review? It’s as good of an idea as any.

I will be using this review club as a weekly guide in case you were wondering.

The General (1926)

Starring: Buster Keaton, Marion Mack, and Glen Cavender

Directed By: Buster Keaton

This is something totally different for me: a silent film. I don’t think I’ve ever sat down to watch a silent film before. I know I know. Bad amateur movie reviewer, bad. Of course, I did know who Buster Keaton was. Master of the silent era stunt and slapstick humor, I would always laugh at the clips I would see from time to time. What better way to start out this feature than a Buster Keaton classic? I couldn’t have planned it better had I tried.

Keaton plays Johnny Gray, a train engineer that has two loves: his train The General (hence the movie’s title) and his fiancee Annabelle Lee (Mack); moreso the train than the girl apparently. He returns home to Marietta, Georgia just in time for South Carolina to attack Fort Sumter thus starting the American Civil War. Having heard the news, Annabelle’s father and brother immediately go to enlist for the Confederacy. She has to prod Johnny to do the same.

After taking shortcuts to get in front of the time, he’s turned away as he’d be more of use to the Confederacy being a train engineer than a soldier in the army. Naturally, they don’t tell him this; they just send him away. After a misunderstanding, Annabelle doesn’t believe Johnny even get in line to enlist and unceremoniously breaks off the engagement. However, a year later when The General is stolen by Union troops (and just so happens to have Annabelle on it), Keaton rushes into action to get back his beloved locomotive…oh, and save the girl while he’s at it. All without smiling, of course.

What follows is a series of hi-jinks and stunts that are memorable not just for their humor, but for the grand scale. It’s hard to believe some of these stunts are real in an era without computer assistance. There are stunts with Keaton famously laying on the front of a train, moving obstacles out of the way with his bare hands. There’s a bit with a cannon in which Keaton had to personally count each grain of black powder with tweezers to pull off. Then there’s a train wreck which would become the most expensive shot in the silent film era.

Keaton is extraordinary as Johnny. The payoffs for all of his stunts are all very funny, especially when he makes us wait a bit longer than expected. It’s not just the stunts that are great, but his acting is as well. His comedic timing is incredible, but he makes his feelings obvious. When he’s bewildered, sad, or even being sarcastic, it’s very easy to tell. It has to be as it is a silent film. The title cards are just there to make sure we understand what’s going on (and are often humorous in their simplicity). Mack is very humorous and plays off Keaton very well as the ditzy but well intentioned Annabelle.

Lastly, I do want to mention that the version I saw is available on Netflix (both on DVD and streaming formats). I only mention this for the score done by Alloy Orchestra, a three piece ensemble which creates new scores for silent films. Their music helped make the movie even more enjoyable to me. As the train(s) speed up, so does the music. Should they come to a stop, the music follows suit. Plus the sound effects added (with a drum, for example) are very funny.

Bottom Line: While perhaps not for everyone, due to it being a silent film, The General is a completely enjoyable movie with great comedic setups and unbelievable stunts. It is surprising just how much of a critical and financial disaster this movie was upon it’s release, but I can’t begin to understand what audiences were looking for back then. It might have taken a while, but we finally caught up to this Keaton classic.

9/10 (Highly Recommended).

I encourage you all to check out the review club I linked at the beginning of this review. There are some great articles on there about some great movies.

I’ll be back Friday with another Top Ten. I’m sure I’ll have some reviews up during the next few days, also.

Until then…

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One Response to “Review: The General”

  1. Yeah I have yet to see any of Buster’s “classic” films but I guess this would be a good place to start. You know, lots of movies got panned when they first came out. The Wizard of Oz and Fantasia for example. Oh how time changes things…

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