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>
Richly inventive comedy with a logically impeccable plot that makes the hyperbolic slapstick seem plausible and inevitable; this is a work of art and a work of genius
Buster Keaton's "The General," about a man and his engine, puts you in a world where the most comically inventive situation that could happen will happen. From major comic situations to throwaway gags, "The General" always knows what to do.
The story begins in leisurely fashion. A title card tells us that Johnnie Gray (Keaton) has two loves in his life: his engine and his girlrespectively, The General and Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack). Johnnie goes to visit Annabelle, followed by two engineer-worshipping boys and, unknown to him, Annabelle Lee herself. He and his entourage arrive at the door; Johnnie polishes his shoes on the back of his pants legs, slicks back his hair, and gently taps the door with the door knocker. Then he turns to notice Annabelle. Keaton's understated reaction is a testament to his uniqueness. Any other comedian would have done an explosive double-take.
Now Johnnie and Annabelle are together in her parlor, but the boys are there, too. Johnnie stands up, puts on his hat and opens the door as if to leave. The hero-worshippers are ready to follow, but Johnnie lets them out first, then closes the door on them. This is a gentle ruse in the world of silent comedy. At Keystone both boys would have gotten kicked in the pants.
Now the two are alone. Annabelle's father sees them from another room and is about to break things up when her brother enters and announces that Fort Sumter has been fired upon: the War Between the States has begun. Annabelle kisses her father and brother as they go to enlist, then turns expectantly to Johnnie, who cocks his head like a confused puppy. She asks, "Aren't you going to enlist?" Realization hits him, and he leaps off the seat. Before he can run out the door, Annabelle kisses him. This so overwhelms Johnnie that he flings out his arm in a farewell gesture and falls off the porch.
Johnnie races to the general store, which is now a makeshift recruitment office. Taking a shortcut he manages to be the first in line. The door to the office is opened and Johnnie comes marching inonly he and the rest of the line go in two different directions, and he has to jump over several tables to get in front again. He gives the enlistment officer his name and occupation, but the man rejects him. Johnnie is more valuable to the South as an engineer. Later, Annabelle believes that Johnnie didn't even try to enlist. She refuses to speak to him again until he's in uniform. What follows is a classic moment: Johnnie sits on the connecting rod of his engine. He's so miserable that he doesn't notice when he starts moving up and down, until just before the train enters a tunnel.
Time passes and we learn that a group of Unionists are secretly passengers on The General. When (nearly) everyone is off the train having dinner, the Unionists climb back aboard and take the engine. Annabelle, a passenger herself, was still on board. She is now their prisoner.
But Johnnie only knows his beloved General has been stolen, possibly by deserters. He pursues the engine by taking another, The Texas. Through a mishap he becomes the sole person aboard The Texas, but the Unionists think they're outnumbered and continue to run. What follows is the true joy of the movie: two long chases (separated by an important plot twist). Now the movie changes its quiet pace for almost nonstop action.
I love it when the Unionists break off the rail car to hinder The Texas. At one point, the car, which Johnnie thought he had switched to another track, reappears in front of the baffled engineer, only to disappear later just as mysteriously. We see the logical circumstances that lead to the car's seeming magic act, and the equally logical situations that keep Keaton occupied, preventing him from seeing what we see.
Comic logic is important to "The General." In no other movie do hyperbolic slapstick gags seem so plausible and inevitable. In a throwaway gag, Johnnie empties a burlap sack full of shoes because he urgently needs the sack. Of courseof course!he loses his own shoe in the pile and must stop to hunt for it.
We move to the second chase, where Johnnie has The General and the Unionists are the ones pursuing him. Now Johnnie must contend with Annabelle Lee.
Marion Mack leaves no mark of her personality on the screen. She deserves credit mainly for being willing and able to take it. Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn were never thrown around, trod upon or knocked about the way Marion Mack was. She has hilarious moments. The excitement of the chase does not prevent her from taking out a broom to sweep the dusty floor of the engine. An exasperated Johnnie tells her to keep throwing wood into the fire. She takes a small stick and daintily puts it in. Johnnie sarcastically hands her a sliver, and she puts that in, too. Then, in a moment that has an audience roaring and clapping, Johnnie grabs her and half-throttles her before kissing her instead.
The final section, most of it a battle scene, includes the shot where The Texas begins to cross a burning bridge, only to crash into the river. Owing to Keaton's disdain of fakery (one of several reasons his works seem modern) he did not use a model but a real train on a real burning bridge. The crash cost $42,000reportedly making it the single most expensive shot ever in a silent film.
A worthy closing gag was too taxing even for Keaton's ingenuity. Johnnie's dilemma is to kiss his girl while saluting the passing soldiers. His remedy is only mildly funny. Is anyone complaining? "The General" is a work of art and a work of genius.
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