Sundays are the perfect time to sit relax and watch something from back in the day. I am used to watching older films every Sunday with my dad and although they weren’t silent films (more Westerns, WW2 films or Roger Corman films). So, I thought it was best to look back a little farther and enjoy the silent era for you to watch on a Sunday. Last time out we reviewed Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus (1928). This time we go a bit further back to Buster Keaton’s The General (1927).
Johnnie Gray has two loves in this world, his precious train ‘The General’ and his fiancé Annabelle Lee. When the American Civil War begins he attempts to enlist, but due to his job as a train engineer, he is deemed too important to join the army. He isn’t told this and is just declined. His future father and brother in law inform Annabelle and the belief is that Johnnie is a coward and she will not speak to him until he is in uniform. The General is then stolen by Union spies with Annabelle on board, he endeavours to get them both back.
I honestly was not too aware of Buster Keaton’s work and expected an over the top performer, after all, I had heard he was one of the best comedic acts in that era. But instead, I saw that he is, in fact, a very restrained performer. This was typified from the very start of the film as he goes to Annabelle’s house to visit her that he is being followed not only by two children he met at the station but Annabelle herself.
Usually, in a silent film (and to be honest in any comedy to this day) the reaction of finding out the person you were meant to see would be with wide-eyed double-takes and silliness. Here, Keaton has a slight gawked double take. The same reaction a normal person would share. It makes him personable to the audience, this continues when he realises the children have come into the house with him and Annabelle. Instead of going over the top, he shows frustration but doesn’t want to admonish them, but merely tricks them into going outside. It’s simple, but very effective humour.
Keaton plays Johnnie as if he is a serious well-meaning man. It just so happens that unbeknownst to him, silly and comedic things happen. That is far more identifiable as a character trait than someone who plays up being the silly goose. He also needs to be on the serious side considering the events of the film. This is typified by Annabelle’s rejection of him until he joins the army. He sits disconsolately on the coupling rod as it moves him up and down, it is not for a few seconds before he realises what is actually happening, wonderful work.
This leads us to the multiple locomotive chases. First off Johnnie chases the stolen The General by foot, sidecar, bicycle and another locomotive. Not knowing that Annabelle has been taken in The General by the Union spies. This long chase see’s Keaton commits to his own stunts, falling backwards off the sidecar onto the tracks. Running and jumping onto a bicycle and crashing it. Never mind all of the train scenes including the famous scene where he has to outrun a slow-moving train to lift the timber tie out of the way and then use that tie to knock another out the way. I am sure a lot of practice and rehearsals went into that shot, but it still doesn’t stop the danger it had.
One thing that makes The General stand out from other comedic films of this ilk was the sheer amount of action in it. We watch Keaton run, climb and jump all over this moving train. This could very well be the first action comedy in the cinema. The fact that it only runs at 78 minutes is all the more awe-inspiring. This would be a two and a half hour epic if told today. The stunts that follow are plentiful as they are dangerous and for audiences in the 1920s unimaginable. A simple scene of trying to move Annabelle from the carriage to the locomotive while it is moving at pace may seem silly, but it is dangerous. Keaton has Mack on his shoulders and has to rely on her to boost herself over enough.
A special mention has to go to the cinematography throughout. The ability to film everything we see during these chase scenes for the time is simply extraordinary. Nothing in cinema would have been like it, especially considering the terrain to have such long tracking shots. These tracking shots allow Keaton and Marion Mack to do so much with so little. Due to the obvious limitations of the time, we do not see multi-angled slow-motion cuts here. It is one shot and that is all you are going to get and from having to live with modern action films for so long now. It is refreshing to see that change, in reality, it is a technique that should be copied once again as it adds an extra layer of realism to a film.
Due to the sheer pace of the chase scenes we do almost loses a little steam when we get away from them and head to the battle scenes, but these were important for Keaton to add and are perhaps the reason for its unfavoured appeal at the time as it could have confused audiences as to what they were meant to be seeing. Keaton still brings his expertly placed humour to help proceedings, but the momentum is lost after the burning bridge scene. It is still a great piece of cinema nonetheless.
Although it was a flop during it’s time it is now considered one of the most important and best films of that era and with good reason. Audiences were used to more slapstick and comedy, whereas The General tried to provide both and perhaps if it had been released at a different time it would have had better success. That wasn’t to be, but audiences love the film now and in the truth that is what matters.
Keaton’s brilliantly stoic performance again accentuates all that is going on around him. It occasionally takes a little bit longer to find or realise a film is a classic. Without a doubt, The General is a wondrous spectacle.
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