The General is by far the most famous of the comedy features in which Buster Keaton starred, and in several cases directed or co-directed, between 1923 and 1928. It is also one of the finest, and has appeared on many 10-best-films lists. All of his silent features followed a basic story formula (a popular one in silent comedy): a young "failure" finally displays prowess and wins the girl. In addition, his films demonstrated, in part or in whole, a striking cinematic imagination as well as superb comic acting. While The General may not be a greater artistic achievement than The Navigator or Sherlock, Jr., it has a number of features that have made it a special favorite of silent film fans.
The film is distinctive for its Civil War setting and location shooting. It was shot mostly in Oregon, where the necessary narrow-gauge railroad tracks were still to be found. (Compare, for contrast, the studio look of Chaplin's The Gold Rush, made at about the same time.) The unusually fine photography (Matthew Brady comparisons are inevitable), the extensive action involving the trains, the ambitious subject based on history (the theft and recovery of the locomotive, "The General"), and the serious element of the drama combined to give this film an epic sweep that is surely unique in silent comedy.
The heroine of the film, delightfully played by Marion Mack, has a larger and more unusual role than in the other Keaton features (excepting The Navigator). Usually a Keaton heroine is either haughty or sweet, but in each case little more than the goal to be attained; Annabelle is forced by circumstances to become skilled in railroading while fleeing southward with The General. There is some stereotyping of the foolish female in some of Annabelle's earlier efforts to block the pursuers and feed the engine, but the evolving of her role from the "unattainable goal" to a partner in action is still refreshing. The moment in which the exasperated Johnnie feigns strangling his dream girl and then swiftly kisses her is one of the more memorable romantic gestures in silent film.
The General is filled with surprising moments: brilliant comic gags or fine touches of sentiment that never go on long enough to become maudlin. Perhaps the comedy is especially striking because it grows out of a serious melodramatic pursuit – but it is particularly satisfying because it stems from the characters of the hero and heroine or from the ironic perspective of the camera. The point has often been made that the camera in Chaplin's films was used mainly to record the body or facial movements of its pantomime hero, while in Keaton's film the comedy often depends on special placement of the camera, or on special visual effects. A classic example in The General occurs when Johnnie has accidentally caused the cannon attachment to be aimed directly at his own train. However, he and his train are spared, and better yet, the Yankees are convinced of the powers of their pursuer(s), when the forepart of Johnnie's train curves left and the cannon fires directly ahead – nearly blasting the back car of the train on the track ahead. The elegance of the gag centers on the placement of the camera behind and above the cannon car, grandly recording the beautifully timed action in one shot. Another famous moment in the film – this one visually simple and emotionally complex – occurs when Johnnie, rejected by Annabelle, sits disconsolately on the crossbar of the engine's wheels as the train starts up. The crossbar carries him up and down twice before he realizes what is going on. His forlorn, unmoving body posture is at once astonishingly sad and funny; any drift into sentimentality is avoided by Johnnie's suddenly aware look as he passes into the train shed. The overall wit and irony of the shot are dependent on the camera being placed at a sufficient distance to show the small size of Johnnie's body against the sublimely indifferent machine.
Much more could be said about this shot, and has been said by analysts of the film: e.g., the way it stresses a "togetherness" between Johnnie and his beloved engine, which is a major subject of the film; and the way that the final shot of the film is a counterpart to it, with both Johnnie and Annabelle sitting on the crossbar. This correspondence of shots is a reminder that the construction of the film is unusually tight and balanced in its overall arc of chase and return. The more one attempts to analyze the comedy, or merely describe certain brilliant shots – such as the one of Johnnie on the cowcatcher removing logs from the tracks – the more one admires the classic assurance and economy of the film.
Release Date: 1926
Starring: Buster Keaton, Marion Mack, Glen Cavender, Jim Farley, Frederick Vroom, Charles Smith, Frank Barnes, Joe Keaton, Mike Denlin, and Tom Nawm
Director: Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman
Writers: Al Boasberg and Charles Smith after a storyline by Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman
Source Citation: Milicia, Joseph. "The General." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. Ed. Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast. 4th ed. Vol. 1: Films. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000. 453-455.