In a futuristic city sharply divided between the working class and the city planners, the son of the city's mastermind falls in love with a working class prophet who predicts the coming of a savior to mediate their differences.
Johnnie loves his train ("The General") and Annabelle Lee. When the Civil War begins he is turned down for service because he's more valuable as an engineer. Annabelle thinks it's because he's a coward. Union spies capture The General with Annabelle on board. Johnnie must rescue both his loves. Written by
Ed Stephan <email@example.com>
Buster Keaton wanted to use the real locomotive "The General", which was at the Nashville, Chattanooga, and St Louis Union Depot in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The railroad initially permitted him to do so, even providing him with a branch line to film on. However, when it became known that the film was to be a comedy, the railroad withdrew permission and Keaton had to look elsewhere. See more »
When Johnnie is running through the woods to escape the Union soldiers, his hat drops from the tree before his head hits the hat to dislodge it. See more »
Buster Keaton always amazes me. He was truly one of the most hilarious deadpan screen clowns of early cinema. And The General, even clocking in at around three hours, is surprisingly watchable based on his physical performance alone.
Granted, I still admit that I prefer the silent clowns in shorts, because it can be a bit exhausting to watch them in an entire feature, especially since they are often strings of vignettes thrown together and my modern brain prefers to edit out everything that's unnecessary, but some of the joy in these films is found in those very moments. There are multiple points in the General, a story about a Southern engineer that has to rescue his beloved from the clutches of the North in the Civil War, where Keaton's character, Johnnie Gray, has to stop his train, jump out, and remove something from the tracks, which in itself can be quite boring, but the way that Keaton injects physical comedy into those moments keeps me entertained.
And it's a marvel how so many realistic, yet comedic stunts that Keaton could come up with. It's nothing fantastic like some of his other films, but it's still funny. And I think the strongest point of his comedy is his completely stonefaced response to all adversity--but he lets you see just a little his plight in his eyes and it's just enough to know that he is frightened, but that the rest of him doesn't react similarly creates such an amusing dissociation that it goes from bizarre to funny. Whether he's pratfalling due to surprise or erroneously succeeding at something he's unskilled in and being shocked by it, that response of his is winning.
But the General does show its age a little. It exists in a time when people were still getting quite used to movies and so there is a lot of space that doesn't get edited out to help people get a better sense of the context. I wouldn't dare cut those moments out of this film, even if I could re-edit it, because the space always had something going on, but at the same time, this film, if made today, would be cut to one-and-a-half, or two hours and pack in the comedy more tightly. The plot and story are simple, but exist more than to just help the comedy move along--except at the end when the first story was accomplished. Then we move into a second extraneous, but still amusing, story regarding a battle between the North and the South that could've been excised and still having a decent, though simple, story.
I didn't really love the score that the DVD company attached to it, which is a number of classical pieces end on end. I think a new commissioned soundtrack would've better matched the piece, but I guess we get what we get. And on the plus side, you can always mute the movie and play whatever on top of it.
Is it perfect? No. But despite the age it shows, it still holds up as an enjoyable work from one of cinema's greatest physical comedians. If you want to spend three hours with a silent clown, this is not a bad way to go. 8/10.
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