#637) The General (1926)
OR “Keaton’s Laws of Locomotion”
Directed by Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton
Written by Buckman and Keaton. Adapted by Al Boasberg and Charles Smith. Based on the book “The Great Locomotive Chase” by William Pittenger.
Class of 1989
The Plot: Inspired by a real life event, “The General” centers around Johnnie Gray (Buster Keaton), a Georgian engineer who loves his steam engine The General as much as he loves his sweetheart Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack). When the Civil War breaks out, Johnnie is rejected by the Confederate Army, though due to a misunderstanding Annabelle thinks he never enlisted and refuses to see him anymore. In 1862, a group of Union soldiers hijack The General, with Annabelle taken hostage onboard. Johnnie pursues the soldiers on another train, with the chase leading him behind enemy lines. Only Johnnie and his set of iconic pratfalls can save them now!
Why It Matters: The NFR calls it Keaton’s “most memorable film”, detailing its rocky production and initial negative reception, though states the film is “now considered a classic of comedic understatement”.
But Does It Really?: If you were forced to only have one Buster Keaton movie on this list, “The General” is the natural choice. We’ve covered almost all of the Keaton on this list, and “The General” brings all of his skills together in one movie: his inventive gags, his impressive stuntwork, his flawless timing, all in his most ambitious film. There is plenty of room for Keaton’s filmography on the NFR, but “The General” is the total package, and a great encapsulation of one of filmdom’s greatest artists.
Wow, That’s Dated: The good news: despite being set during The Civil War, “The General” does not feature any negative stereotypes of African-Americans and makes no reference to slavery. The bad news: Because of this, the film has been criticized for promoting the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, in which the Confederate succession had nothing to do with slavery and more with subjective values like honor and chivalry. It’s the kind of revisionist history that I assume is still popular in some the internet’s more dubious corners.
Title Track: I have somehow gone the entire run of this blog without knowing that The General in “The General” is the train. Not only that, but The General was the name of the actual train that was stolen in the real-life event. Keaton attempted to get the real General for his film, but the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railway denied access once they learned that the film was a comedy.
- William Pittenger was one of the Union soldiers who stole The General, and while many of his co-conspirators were caught and hanged, Pittenger survived and eventually recounted his experience in the 1889 memoir “The Great Train Robbery”. 35 years later, Clyde Bruckman brought this story to the attention of his collaborator (and train enthusiast) Buster Keaton, who immediately saw the potential of a film version. According to Keaton biographer Marion Meade, Keaton changed the film’s protagonist to the Southern engineer because he didn’t think an audience would accept the Confederates as the bad guys (which….huh).
- “The General” received the then unheard of budget of $400,000 (roughly 6.8 million today). It helps that the head of United Artists at the time was Joseph Schenck, the former head of Buster Keaton Productions. The film’s production lasted throughout the summer of 1926, and was troubled to say the least. Many cast and crew members (including Keaton) suffered physical injuries, and the budget ballooned upwards of $750,000 (some sources even saying $1,000,000). In addition to the metaphorical fires Keaton and his crew put out, there were also the frequent literal fires caused by the trains’ wood-burning engines and their proximity to trees and haystacks.
- I was all ready to subtitle this post “Union Buster” only to realize that a) Keaton’s character is on the Confederate side and b) I already used that subtitle on my “Outlaw Josey Wales” post. There are only so many Civil War-based puns.
- One of the Confederate generals (the one who kinda looks like the Wizard of Oz) is played by Keaton regular Frederick Vroom. That name again: Frederick Vroom.
- My first legitimate LOL of the film came when Johnnie gets rejected by the Confederate army: “If you lose this war, don’t blame me.”
- The film’s first iconic shot comes when Johnnie, dejected from his encounter with Annabelle, unknowingly sits on a nearby train’s coupling rods, and remains seated even when the train takes off and the rods start moving. Just one of those perfect film moments that epitomizes the silent era: it’s visually impressive and you know it will never be replicated again.
- Once we get to the actual train chases the film (forgive me) really picks up steam. It’s all so wildly inventive. I especially enjoyed the scene of Johnnie trying to fire a cannon at the soldiers, with hilarious results. All I could think was “How did he do that?”
- The film’s other iconic moment: Johnnie sitting on the train’s cowcatcher, quickly removing lumber from the track to prevent derailment. As with all of Keaton’s stunt work, you marvel at a man doing all of these stunts in real time. No double, no green screen, just a comic genius who can somehow control the timing of everything around him, even the movement of the lumber. Given the degree of difficulty, I have dubbed Buster Keaton “Silent Film’s Greatest Insurance Risk”.
- One thing I noticed about Buster Keaton in this film: He’s so handsome. Keaton would have been 31 when he filmed “The General”, and he has a very youthful, almost Roman look about him. Maybe it’s the combination of more close-ups and the restored print I was watching that made me notice that the Great Stoneface is actually quite the looker.
- I was not expecting this movie to have a bear in it, and definitely not expecting any character to get caught in a bear trap. Somehow Annabelle survives this without needing her leg amputated.
- Almost immediately after the bear trap scene, Annabelle spends an entire sequence trapped inside a burlap bag. And who says there aren’t any good parts for women?
- Not to overanalyze why Keaton’s comedy works, but for me it’s the little moves: the glances, the hesitations, the extra half-steps that Keaton’s characters all tend to have. Obviously these moves are part of his films’ overall choreography, but these details add some realism to the absurdity, as if Keaton’s character is an innocent bystander who somehow found himself in a silent movie.
- Once we got to the train riding past a water tank, I was ready for the iconic sequence where Keaton runs atop the train cars and dangles on the water spout. And then I remembered that that sequence isn’t in this movie: it’s in “Sherlock Jr.”, which I’ve already covered for this blog. Man these movies bleed together after a while.
- The finale isn’t the funniest scene in the movie (even critics at the time found it a tad too dark), but you do have to admire the scope of it. I mean come on, Keaton was blowing up bridges and crashing trains 30 years before “Bridge on the River Kwai“. Side note: that shot of the bridge exploding is said to have cost $42,000, allegedly making it the most expensive shot in silent film history.
- The climax may have been disappointing, but at least the film ends with a solid gag, where the recently promoted Lt. Johnnie kisses Annabelle while simultaneously saluting each passing soldier. Good stuff.
- “The General” is one of the few classic films on this list that started out as both a critical and financial failure. Critics felt the film didn’t live us to Keaton’s standards, with the New York Herald Tribune calling it “the least-funny thing Buster Keaton has every done.” While the film did okay financially, it did not come close to recouping its budget. Due to the film’s perceived failure, Keaton lost a lot of his creative control, ultimately leaving United Artists for MGM, a move that gave him even less creative freedom. Despite the bad breaks, Keaton stood by “The General”, and considered it the best film he ever made.
- Reevaluation of “The General” started happening in the 1950s, when actor James Mason bought Buster Keaton’s former house in Los Angeles and found a print of the film (then presumed lost or destroyed) in a walled-up section that used to be Keaton’s projection room. A few years after the film’s rediscovery, “The General” lapsed into public domain, therefore making it free to air on TV and reaching a wider audience. Keaton lived long enough to see his work be rediscovered, and “The General” received a successful re-release in the 1960s.
- “The Great Locomotive Chase” was adapted for the screen again as the 1956 Disney drama of the same name starring Fess Parker. Unlike Keaton’s adaptation, this version skews closer to the source material, with the Union soldiers once again serving as protagonists.
- As for the train itself: The General was retired in 1891 after 35 years of service. The engine of The General has been displayed many places over the last century, including both the 1939 and 1964 New York World’s Fair. For the last 50 years, The General has resided at the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History in Kennesaw, Georgia.