Bill Knows Best Marathon: The General (1926)

There’s no better way to kick off any marathon than with Buster Keaton!

Written By: Clyde Bruckman & Buster Keaton
Directed By: Clyde Bruckman & Buster Keaton

I still remember the first time I watched The General, it was a mesmerizing experience. Up till that point my only exposure to silent era comedy had been of the Charlie Chaplin variety. I was hesitant to give Mr. Keaton a try because it seemed like every write-up of Mr. Keaton in some way was an attack on Mr. Chaplin and how Mr. Keaton was so much funnier. I didn’t, and still don’t, have time for that sort of argument, so I put off watching any of Mr. Keaton’s work for a while. Then a great thing happened, The General was scheduled to expire from my Netflix Instant Queue. I had no choice but to sit down and watch The General, what followed was an hour and forty five minutes of continual laughter and eyes opened wide in astonishment at the pure physicality of Mr. Keaton.

I guess you could say I was hooked, well actually I know you could say I was hooked. Mr. Keaton was a different beast than most comedy stars of the film realm that I had been privy to up until that point. On this viewing I still laughed a lot and I was still astonished by the physicality of Mr. Keaton. I still recognized the different way that Mr. Keaton approached his comedy and his stories. But, this viewing of The General really allowed me to appreciate other aspects of the film that I never gave enough attention to before.

For all the humor and physical comedy of The General it’s also a great action movie. This is thanks completely to the willingness of Mr. Keaton to be so darn physical. There’s one sequence a bit past the halfway point of the film where from a long shot we see Mr. Keaton scale from the back car of the train over the firewood car and slide right into the engineer car. In theory it’s a simple sequence, a series of small jumps and running that shouldn’t amount to much. In reality that sequence is a brilliant action piece, showing the daredevil tendencies that Mr. Keaton was willing to take on in order to give his audience the best film possible. There’s a thrill to the action of The General and that thrill is present because Mr. Keaton is really doing the jumping, the running, the falling, the sliding, and so forth.

Another aspect of The General that stuck out more to me on this viewing was how it is slyly an anti-war film. It’s not an outwardly anti-war film, but the futile nature of the actions of every soldier speaks to the futile nature of war. At the same time it’s important to note that any time Mr. Keaton’s character, Johnny Gray, attempts what could be considered a victorious action of war it backfires on him. When he tries to unsheathe his sword he fails miserably. When Johnny grabs the Confederate flag and tries to wave it for a rally cray at the top of a cliff he is actually standing on another soldier who then gets up causing Johnny and the flag to go flying backwards. It’s no Paths Of Glory as far as its anti-war sentiments go, but The General does have a layer of anti-war to it, and it is handled in a finely subtle fashion.

I was trying not to, but I really can’t write a review of The General without talking about how funny the movie is. Two things make The General so funny, Buster Keaton and Buster Keaton’s face. Buster Keaton is the constant comedic presence in the film, always willing to take a funny pratfall or be the guy who has to run after the train that is moving away from him. Buster Keaton’s face is as stoic as always, and it’s not in focus a ton in The General. However there are little moments here and there where the camera rests on Mr. Keaton’s face. In those moments his stone faced expression gives rise to lots of laughter because it speaks to the comic absurdity of what we’ve just seen happen.

Introducing The General to my wife was a big deal for me. Hopefully she’ll have kind things to say, but even if she doesn’t that won’t change my opinion that The General is the greatest comedy of all time. I know that’s high praise and avoiding hyperbole is something I’ve been trying to work on. But, sometimes the shoe fits, and in the case of The General the shoe most certainly fits. I found more to admire about The General this time around but I found myself laughing just as much as I ever did before. The General is the best of Buster Keaton, the best of comedy, and an all around great experience.




Sarah’s Soapbox

Watching The General was my first experience with Buster Keaton, and I was pleased with the results. I found his acting to be incredibly funny throughout the film. I ended up smiling a lot and even letting out a few chuckles as I watched his crazy antics. What I enjoy about silent films is that everything physical is exaggerated. Since there aren’t words you are focused more closely on what they are doing, and that makes every little movement carry a lot of importance. I thought that every move made by Buster Keaton and the rest of the cast worked perfectly to make the story funny.

One thing that I thought was interesting was that Buster Keaton did his own stunts in this film. Some of the stunts looked pretty risky and I was shocked to see that he did them all by himself. And to add to my amazement, he was funny while really risking injury or death to do these stunts! I went into The General expecting comedy, but not expecting as much action as the movie provided. The action and the comedy combined to make a really good silent film experience for me.




14 responses to “Bill Knows Best Marathon: The General (1926)

  1. I’d have been heartbroken had you not enjoyed this, Now you have to watch Sherlock Jr. (only 40-odd mins). He apparently got his neck fractured doing one of the stunts in that film and didn’t discover it till he went to the doctor months later and it had already healed naturally!

  2. I was a latecomer to Keaton, too; my dad introduced me to Chaplin, but not to Keaton, for some reason. Later, then, I was a little resistant to the idea of Keaton – for irrational reasons. But The General charmed the socks off me – so hilarious and I couldn’t get enough of Keaton’s face and his acrobatics. Comic perfection. Chaplin is Chaplin and Keaton is Keaton. And they’re BOTH brilliant!

  3. Seema- Sherlock Jr. is in my queue, it’s only a matter of time until I get to it, I’ll have to try and make sure Sarah sees it as well. 🙂

    Melissa- That’s pretty much my stance. I slightly prefer Keaton, but it’s not really a competition, both guys are fabulous performers and a joy to watch.

  4. My favorite scene is when they are chasing the General, and Buster tells Annabelle Lee that he needs the fire to be stoked and she starts to throw in twigs, as opposed to logs. He realizes what she’s doing and for a brief second contemplates smacking her, until he surmises that she’s just as green as he was just hours before , and he kisses her for her innocence.

  5. That is a great sequence, isn’t that also the sequence where for a brief couple of seconds he’s strangling her?

  6. You’re right, I’m wrong, its been awhile since I’ve watched it. He feigns strangling her, then I think he kisses her on the cheek.

  7. Yep, that would be the one, good stuff. 🙂

  8. Keaton is fantastic. I’ve yet to watch a film of his that didn’t get me laughing consistently. I like Go West, Seven Chances and Sherlock Jr. more than The General, but I love them all and they’ll all wonderful films I’d watch again.

  9. I’ve seen assorted Keaton over the years, and I have yet to find a film that I didn’t at the very least like or find funny. Steamboat Bill Jr. is another favorite of mine.

  10. If you’re going to pick a Keaton film that was a great one to start with. I also highly recommend his films Our Hospitality and Seven Chances.

    No set of silent comedies would be complete without the third king of the genre – Harold Lloyd. I highly recommend his classic film Safety Last. You may have seen an old still of a man hanging from a clock on the side of a building? That’s from this film. Like Keaton, Lloyd also did his own stunts. You know he’s really on the side of a building and the traffic driving by in the background is not CGI. Most people don’t believe me when I tell them an almost 90 year old movie can have them on the edge of their seat, then I show them Safety Last.

  11. If you are interested in silents films, then check out this documentary on YouTube…

    This was a landmark documentary back in 1980 by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill, and will probably never see the light of day on DVD due to copyright problems. This is a playlist I made containing all thirteen episodes in very good condition. It’s long, but watch it before it disappears. If you like it, it also has posted links to download it at Rapidshare.

  12. Chip – I have yet to see any Harold Lloyd, he’s one of the many blind spots in my cinematic viewing that I hope to get to someday.

    Antares – I’ll have to check that doc out, once I get all settled in the new house of course. 🙂

  13. Pingback: Review: Sherlock Jr. (1924) | Bill's Movie Emporium

  14. Pingback: Postulating & Pontificating: Streaming Wasteland! | Bill's Movie Emporium

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