#18 The General (1927)

by Trey Hock on May 14, 2011

in 1 Year, 100 Movies,Columns

For 1 Year, 100 Movies, contributor/filmmaker Trey Hock is watching all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year. His reactions to each film are recorded here twice a week until the year (and list) is up!

Sometimes people just get it so wrong. Just imagine if Seth Rogen were to star in a thoughtful comedy, which focused on the slow build and the long gag. Instead of always reaching for the quick joke about masturbation or smoking pot, Rogen went for a character driven piece constructed out of bits that took five to ten minutes to unfold and revealed humorous surprises across several scenes. Many would cry foul, and claim that Rogen had lost his touch, that he was better in “Knocked Up.”

So it was with #18, Buster Keaton’s “The General,” a masterful film that wasn’t recognized for its brilliance until some thirty years after its original release.

Reviews at the time “The General” was originally released claimed that the laughs were not plentiful, the main character was stupid and uninteresting, and that Keaton, as writer, director and actor, had bitten off more than he could chew. Just check out this excerpt from Variety’s review published on New Year’s Eve in 1926, which summed up the sentiments of the time.

Its principal comedy scene is built on that elementary bit, the chase, and you can’t continue a fight for almost an hour and expect results. Especially is this so when the action is placed entirely in the hands of the star. It was his story, he directed, and he acted. The result is a flop.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. In reality Keaton had made the transition from vaudevillian to actor and director, and he was using the still young medium of film to a fuller extent of its potential. Keaton relied on what film was capable of to convey subtlety in performance, instead of always going for the overt double take, or theatrical arm waving.

Where before there was only a series of gags, now there was character and story.

In “The General,” Keaton plays Johnny Gray, a Southern railroad engineer in Marietta, Georgia. Johnny’s two loves are his engine, The General, and Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack), a beautiful Southern belle.

When shots are fired at Fort Sumter, Annabelle’s father (Charles Henry Smith) and brother (Frank Barnes), rush off to enlist in the Confederate Army. At Annabelle’s request, Johnny tries to enlist as well, but meets with unexpected opposition. (Music begins at 9 seconds.)

Since Johnny wants to be the first to enlist, he dashes down allies and hurdles tables to make sure that he’s at the front of the line. When he’s rejected, he sizes up the next two in line, who successfully enlist. Keaton uses his acrobatic skill and physical ability to tell the story, but never allows stunt to over power story. This makes the stunts, though thoroughly impressive and mind-bogglingly dangerous, subtle and often magical. Even something as simple as Johnny sizing up the other small enlistee is hilarious and tells the story. There is no question what’s going on in Johnny’s mind.

Johnny is not allowed to enlist. Annabelle’s father and brother see Johnny leaving with out his enlistment slip, and assume Johnny’s a coward. As the father and brother head home to Annabelle, Johnny seeks solace in the company of the General.

This is one of the two or three scenes that are usually shown from “The General” and it’s an impressive stunt, but it only conveys its emotional power if you know that Johnny’s consumed with Annabelle and his train, and that he was unable to fulfill his promise to Annabelle by enlisting. His melancholy is so complete that he is unaware that the train is moving. It is hilarious and touching.

A small band of Union soldiers sneaks into town and steals the General and accidently takes Annabelle hostage. Johnny, intent on rescuing his train and unaware that Annabelle is in any danger, pursues the Union soldiers in another engine. Along the way he picks up a large cannon, but Johnny’s attack goes awry. (Music starts at 9 seconds.)

This scene feels like magic to me. Keaton was known for his stone-faced acting, but if someone were to shout and wave their arms frantically as the cannon bumps and lowers to point right at our hero, then it wouldn’t have the same impact that it does when the cannonball finds its way to the Union soldiers. The tension is more acute because of Keaton’s apparent calm.

Johnny catches up to the Union troops, overhears plans for a sneak attack, and discovers Annabelle. After an awkwardly funny rescue, Johnny and Annabelle run into the woods, only to become lost in the darkness. Here Annabelle expresses her gratitude for Johnny’s daring rescue.

We of course know that, until just moments before, Johnny had no idea that Annabelle was a prisoner. Johnny wanted only to get his beloved General back, but the way his expression changes after Annabelle thanks him for his bravery is wonderful. This is incredible storytelling, and without a single word spoken.

Johnny gets his engine back and escapes, but the Union forces give chase. Johnny and Annabelle slow them down by throwing various objects on the track, but they are forced to stop for firewood. This of course leads to a multi-layered bit which involves Johnny throwing logs into the fuel car, and Annabelle setting up a make shift trap.

Again we see Keaton’s abilities concerning physical comedy, all the while the story chugs along. The split timber throwing makes us laugh, while the pursuit of the Union soldiers makes us tense, and Annabelle’s trap makes us expectant. We are rewarded with a healthy chuckle when the following train smashes into the largely ineffectual trap and our hero and heroine escape with their firewood.

Up until now I haven’t focused on the sheer scope of this ambitious film. Shot in the 1920s, “The General” was a period piece, which took place in the early 1860s. Keaton was a stickler for details, so much so, that he borrowed three antique steam engines and moved his production company to Oregon, where they still had the correct gauge of railroad track. He even tried to use the original General, but the museum that had the engine didn’t think Keaton’s film worthy of the loan.

Keaton performed all of his own stunts and was often running around on top of the moving train, sitting on the cowcatcher, and hurling logs and cannonballs off the engine or fuel car. All his stunts were incredible, but the final stunt tops them all.

Johnny sets fire to a wooden bridge hoping to stop the advancing forces and give the Confederate troops a chance to rally. The Union forces don’t believe that the bridge has burnt through and decide to continue their pursuit.

Don’t scratch your head too much thinking about how Keaton was able to get this unbelievable shot. It’s simple really. He hired 500 extras to act as soldiers, bought a train engine just for this shot, set up something like six or seven cameras, lit the bridge on fire, put a dummy in the engineer’s position, and let the train roll over the bridge and crash into the gorge. This really happened. A stunning achievement to rival D.W. Griffith, and just one glowing example of the passion and genius of Buster Keaton.

When it premiered the film was a flop. People didn’t understand the apparent lack of cheap laughs. They wanted site gags, not story. Luckily in the 1950s, “The General” was rediscovered, in part because in 1952 Keaton was cast opposite to Charlie Chaplin in “Limelight.” Chaplin’s gesture would bring long overdue accolades to Keaton, and renewed interest in the films of this master of physical comedy. Ultimately this late praise resulted in an honorary Academy Award in 1960. Keaton was 65. He would die 6 years later at 71.

I have tried in the past to argue for the power of silent films and I have offered “Modern Times,” “The Gold Rush” and “Sunrise” as possible entry points to the silent era, but “The General” is the only one of the silent films on the list that my wife, Jaime, was able to sit through from beginning to end without complaint, just an occasional delighted gasp, or laugh.

“The General” is so good you’ll forget it’s silent.

Next #17 “The Graduate” (1967)

1 Year, 100 Movies #19 On the Waterfront (1954)

For links to #20-29, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #20 It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

For links to #30-39, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #30 Apocalypse Now (1979)

For links to #40-49, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #40 The Sound of Music (1965)

For links to #50-59, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #50 The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

For links to #60 – 69, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #60 Duck Soup (1933)

For links to #70 – 79, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #70 A Clockwork Orange (1971)

For links to #80 – 89, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #80 The Apartment (1960)

For links to #90 – 100, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #90 Swing Time (1936)

In addition to contributing to Scene-Stealers, Trey makes short films and teaches at the Kansas City Art Institute. Follow him here:

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Reed May 14, 2011 at 7:56 pm

More great work, Trey. I have always wanted to see this one, and you make a convincing argument. I must say that the clips don’t really sell me. But I think with many films, especially silent or foreign films, it’s hard to just pick up a few scenes and enjoy it. To be in the moment, you have to immerse yourself in the film first. And that’s hard to do in three minute chunks. More than anything, Jaime’s reaction tells me that perhaps my wife would be up for it, too.

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2 Trey Hock May 14, 2011 at 8:12 pm

Reed, you should go for it. I try to always make the clips long enough to establish tone and emotion, but you’re absolutely right. The clips just aren’t enough to tell the story, but really that’s a great thing. Now you can go and check out the whole film for yourself.

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