Friday, 10 June 2016

The General (1926)

This film is the reason I bought this three-pack.  I saw The General back when I was high school, and it was on the cusp on its 65th anniversary.  It's now a whopping 90 years old, and I have to say it has aged a lot better than I have.

Buster Keaton considered this to be his finest film, and in the fullness of time critics and audiences (including me) have come to agree with him.  At the time of release, however, The General was a financial and critical flop.  Its reception marked the end of Keaton's independence as a film-maker, and may have contributed to the copyright holder's failure to renew its registration, causing film to enter the public domain in the US.  Which means you can find it on if you're so inclined.  And in my opinion, you should be.

Keaton plays Johnnie Gray, an engineer on the railroad.  It is the eve of the Civil War, and when hostilities break out, Johnnie's sweetheart expects him to enlist immediately in the Confederate army.  Since she is pretty much the only thing in the world he loves more than his locomotive, Johnnie immediately attempts to join up ... and is rejected because his skills on the railroad are more important to the Confederacy than one more man in the infantry.  A series of unfortunate coincidences, however, lead his lady love to believe that Johnnie is a coward, and she tell him she does not want to see him again until he is in uniform.

And so it seems all is lost for poor Johnnie.  At least until a year later, when dastardly Union spies steal his locomotive - and accidentally kidnap his former sweetheart in the process - as part of a scheme to wreck the Confederate war effort.  Johnnie sets out in hot pursuit, waging a one-man campaign to recover his steam engine and his lady love.

The General has some mild chuckles in the early going, but it builds up steam - if you'll pardon the expression - as it goes, until the laughs are coming thick and fast.  Keaton's knack for physical comedy, deadpan delivery and finding the absurd in the mundane has never been more on point.

If you only see one silent-era comedy, make it this one.

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