Wednesday, August 22, 2012
The General (1926)
The General, released in 1926, is usually regarded as Buster Keaton’s masterpiece. Personally I’ve never been a fan of silent comedies but I do make an exception for Keaton.
I still think Our Hospitality is a funnier film, but The General does have its moments.
Keaton plays Johnnie Gray, an engine driver who tries to enlist in the Confederate army in the Civil War but is turned down on the grounds that he can serve the South better as an engineer than as a soldier. That earns him the scorn of his true love, Annabelle (Marion Mack). Well actually his first love is his locomotive,The General, but Annabelle runs a close second.
A year later Johnnie gets his opportunity to play the hero. Union spies steal The General, intending to head north with while demolishing the railroad line behind the engine to cut off supplies to the Southern forces. Johnnie sets off in pursuit, alone but undaunted. Eventually he not only steals back his beloved train, he also comes into possession of secret Union war plans. He has to make his way back to the Confederate lines with a train full of Union soldiers in hot pursuit.
When The General was stolen Annabelle was taken prisoner. He rescues her and she provides him with some help, and some hindrance.
This mad chase affords Keaton plenty of opportunities to display his gifts for visual humour. The movie is funny but it’s also exciting and rather moving - you can’t help rooting for the valiant if somewhat foolhardy Johnnie.
There’s not much to be said about Keaton’s acting. His deadpan expression was part of his style and it’s a style that worked for him.
As a writer and director he was innovative and imaginative. His visual gags are often complex and must have been an enormous challenge to film.
I don’t rate this movie quite as highly as most people do but it is undeniably funny, and it avoids the emotional manipulation practised by his great rival Chaplin. That in my opinion makes Keaton’s movies much more enjoyable than Chaplin’s.
The Region 4 DVD from Force Entertainment includes a couple of Keaton’s shorts. The Balloonatic is actually funnier than the main feature. Picture quality is pretty good.