Thursday, March 13, 2014

The General (1926)

Johnnie Gray (Buster Keaton) is a train engineer at the onset of the War of Northern Aggression. Wishing to win the favor of his love, he is first in line at the recruitment office. Because he is more valuable as an engineer, they refuse to enlist him. But they don't tell him why.

When he tells his love they wouldn't enlist him, she doesn't believe him, having been told he never got in line. She won't see him again. A year later Johnnie's train (The General) is captured by Northern scalawags, the pretty Annabelle Lee along with it. Johnnie pursues them alone.

A silent comedy where the star's trademark is to not change his expression. Hmm. How's that going to work. Surprisingly well it turns out. Frequently I found myself chuckling to the slapstick comedy. It totally won me over. It is interesting to note that the setting for this film was more recent to the filmmakers than the end of World War II is for us.

In addition to Keaton's comic genius, this is a fascinating movie to watch. The action sequences were well shot, the pacing was good, and some of the stunts were ... well, I'm surprised Keaton didn't break his fool head ten times over. No lawyer today would allow anything close to this. You can start with the scene of the train rolling directly into town without any kind of barrier. From there, you have Keaton falling down repeatedly on the tracks, jumping from car to car, rolling down a rocky slide directly into the path of an oncoming train, and sitting on the connecting rod while the engine is in motion.

Hey, my first Buster Keaton! Yea, he was in Sunset Blvd, but as a cameo. The writer, director, star of this movie gave himself tenth billing. I read once that Michael Keaton took his sir name out of respect. Can't find a reference to that now. Michael's real last name is Douglas.

The General shows that sound, while a useful tool in storytelling, is not essential. The Netflix copy is crisp but after a brief inspection, it appears the Amazon Prime copy is slightly better, if four minutes shorter. Skip the public domain copies haunting the internet. The subtle nuances, the acrobatics, the action sequences, and the big battle pay-off deserve a quality copy. AMRU 4. Look for the most expensive single scene in the silent film era.

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