The General (1926)

Directed by Clyde Bruckman & Buster Keaton
Written by Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman

When I start to think about the silent film era there are two names that come out in my face shouting greatness: Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton. However, I am not overly familiar with either. For Chaplin I have seen two of his films, City Lights, which I thought was brilliant, and the talkie The Great Dictator, which I also thought was brilliant. But with Buster Keaton, I have failed to experience any of his classic films. So I was extremely happy to sit down and finally treat myself to his most famous film: The General. Somehow Chaplin and Keaton were the best kept secret to me, but now I am just wanting more and more of their awesome physical comedy.

Silent films, I have found in my limited experience, always seem to have fairly simple plots, which is the best way to use the style, otherwise it may become too convoluted. So here it is no different. Johnnie Gray (Buster Keaton) has two loves in his life: his locomotive, “The General”, and his girl, Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack). So when the Civil War breaks out, Annabelle’s brother and father enlist for the South, but they are beaten to the office by Johnnie, who is turned away because he is better served as an engineer according to the recruitment officer, but he fails to give this explanation to Johnnie. So when Annabelle and her family learn of his failure to enlist, they think him yellow, and shun him until they see him in uniform. So Johnnie must use his skills to save his love with Annabelle, and ultimately his country.

Much of the film takes place on trains and train tracks and as such there is some tricky filmmaking involved. In essence this is an action film and the stunt work, done mostly by Keaton himself, is some of the most amazing I have ever seen, even in this day and age of professional stuntmen working for big budget Hollywood productions. The action sequences are really great and engaging and what is amazing is that the majority of the picture is made up of these sequences. And the special effects, well, what can I say, I don’t know how they did it. They derailed trains and blew up bridges and by the looks of it it was all real, and all really dangerous for the actors, principally Buster Keaton, involved.

There is a certain preciseness that surrounds the picture. Keaton pulls off the physical so effortlessly, which is amazing because his character is somewhat of a klutz. The cinematography and choreography of some of the scenes is astounding. There is one shot in particular with Keaton on the train, chopping wood as the train goes by and we see the Union army charging on the field next to the tracks. Just brilliant. And along with it is great editing, once again especially in that particular shot because before that specific shot we see Keaton’s character up close chopping the wood on the train car, and then there is a seamless cut to the broader shot. There is this type of precise editing and great choreography throughout the film.

It really is a testament to the great direction and imagination of Keaton and his colleague Clyde Bruckman to bring it together in a finished product as polished as this. But in contrast to the preciseness of the technical, is the heart and soul of the emotional, both in regards to the romance and the comedy. Keaton’s deadpan, stone face delivery may not seem that expressive, but he does the physical so well that the relationship between him and Annabelle is so convincing. And along with that is his physical ability to entertain with his own brand of comedy. When I started the film I wondered if I would laugh, even a bit into it I was noticing it wasn’t overly funny, but by the end of the film I had laughed out loud on more than one occasion, but more importantly I was in awe of the filmmaking for something that produced in 1926. I just had a blast.

 

Adam Kuhn

Adam Kuhn was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, where he attended Saint Charles Preparatory School. He studied History at the University of Cincinnati, where he was a contributor of The News Record, the twice-weekly, independent student news organization. He has been writing film reviews and blogging since 2009.

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