The General (1926)
May 20, 2022 12:10 AM - Subscribe

After being rejected by the Confederate military, not realizing it was due to his crucial civilian role, an engineer must single-handedly recapture his beloved locomotive after it is seized by Union spies and return it through ene...

One of the most revered comedies of the silent era, this film finds hapless Southern railroad engineer Johnny Gray (Buster Keaton) facing off against Union soldiers during the American Civil War. When Johnny's fiancée, Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack), is accidentally taken away while on a train stolen by Northern forces, Gray pursues the soldiers, using various modes of transportation in comic action scenes that highlight Keaton's boundless wit and dexterity.

Robert E. Sherwood: Keaton shows signs of vaulting ambition in The General... That he fails to get across is due to the scantiness of his material as compared with the length of his film; he has also displayed woefully bad judgment in deciding just where and when to stop.

In the latter connection, some one should have told Buster that it is difficult to derive laughter from the sight of men being killed in battle. Many of his gags at the end of the picture are in such gruesomely bad taste that the sympathetic spectator is inclined to look the other way.

"The General" has some grad scenes. Two aged locomotives chase each other through the heart of the Civil War zone, and the ingenuity displayed by Buster Keaton in keeping these possibly tedious chases alive is little short of incredible.

In spite of it's pretentious proportions, "The General" is not nearly so good as Raymond Griffith's's Civil War comedy,"Hands Up."

Mordaunt Hall: In spite of his bursts of speed and flashes of ingenuity, Johnnie Gray, the hero of "The General," the new picture at the Capitol, is hardly the person who would be trusted with a locomotive. This rôle is played by Buster Keaton, who appears to have bitten off more than he can chew in this farcical affair concerned with the days of the Civil War. Mr. Keaton still preserves his inscrutable expression; he looks like a clergyman and acts like a vaudeville tumbler.The production itself is singularly well mounted, but the fun is not exactly plentiful. Sometimes laughter yesterday afternoon was stirred up by slapstick ideas, and at other junctures the mere stupidity of the principal character had the desired effect.During a few chapters in the beginning there was more or less interest in this feature. It happens when the preoccupied Johnny Gray is driving his dear old locomotive, known as the General, through the Northern lines. He is chased by other locomotives equally speedy and graceful. The other love of Gray's life, Annabelle Lee (not a locomotive but an attractive girl) spends part of her time putting anything from toothpicks to great lops into the locomotive fire. Together, hero and heroine throw out timber and crates to hinder their pursuers. One wonders that the man who has sense enough to defeat his enemies is so utterly brainless when he throws wood on the tender.This is by no means so good as Mr. Keaton's previous efforts. Here he is more the acrobat than the clown, and his vehicle might be described as a mixture of cast iron and jelly.

Pamela Hutchinson:That would be a tragedy, as The General is one of the funniest, most ingenious and gosh-darn exciting films you will ever see in your long and happy life. If familiarity has bred a touch of contempt, or just complacency, in your bosom, I would gladly bend your ear about the pin-sharp 4k transfer, and the booming rendition of Carl Davis’s nimble and turbo-charged score on this digital print. But that geeky stuff isn’t for everyone, so if that doesn’t tempt you, here are five more reasons to see The General … again.
The early, funny stuff

So we all know The General as a chase film, packed with stunts and crashing locomotives. Well, it actually starts in a very sedate fashion, as our hero Johnnie (Buster Keaton) goes to visit his girl Annabelle, who prompts him to enlist and fight for the South. Patience is a virtue – don’t be in a rush to get to the fast and furious business on the tracks. Johnnie’s pratfall as he leaves Annabelle’s house, the beautiful recruiting-office sequence and that wonderful selfie of Johnnie and his other beloved are all worth arriving at the cinema nice and early for. The scene-setting opening ends with one of the quietest, but most dangerous stunts in the whole movie, as Johnnie perches forlornly on the coupling rods of a locomotive that is picking up speed …

posted by Carillon (5 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Parts of this were pretty genius, made all the more amazing by the fact that these stunts were done practically! The South being portrayed as the protagonist, with the southern general looking very similar to Lee was a huge turn off though.
posted by Carillon at 12:54 AM on May 20 [1 favorite]

Seconding the Southern stuff being a turnoff. I saw this about three days after the Tiki-Torch Riot in Charlottesville, as a new Buster Keaton fan, and I REALLY had a problem seeing him carry the Stars-and-Bars in that scene towards the end, to the point that it ruined the whole film for me.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:15 AM on May 20 [6 favorites]

While acknowledging the historical importance of this film, I recommend to you this analysis of the film and its place in the history of American culture celebrating white supremacy and the "lost cause" of the antebellum south. From the essay:
The film is clear as day in its endorsement of the Confederacy’s ideology of white supremacy. And to be clear, I’m not referring to unconscious or subtle racism, but actual, undiluted white supremacy, a belief which poses blacks as an inferior race whose role in society is to serve whites.
The film, like much of Keaton's oeuvre, is a masterpiece of visual storytelling, but it tells its story in explicit support of a deeply immoral, oppressive, and violent system and culture.
posted by gauche at 8:46 AM on May 20 [7 favorites]

Thanks for linking that piece gauche. It really put some things I was thinking about in a better light and yeah makes some really good points about how it's not 'apolitical'.
posted by Carillon at 11:16 AM on May 20 [1 favorite]

Torn torn torn about this one. It contains some of Keaton's greatest stunt work, and some of the greatest stunts of the entire film industry of its time. But yeah, its morality is tainted. (gauche's linked article is great.)

Luckily there's a ton of other good Keaton films to watch.
posted by Pallas Athena at 4:24 PM on May 22

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