Buster Keaton was one of the three (or four) great early movie comedians: Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Keaton (and Harry Langdon). Many, including film critics and historians, believe Keaton to be the greatest comedian and comedy director that America ever produced.
Further, his film, The General, is considered one of the finest films every produced in the USA. In 2002, Roger Ebert, the late and very popular movie critic, ranked The General as one of his Top 10 films of all time. More recently, the prestigious Sight & Sound journal polled 186 European and American film critics in 2009 to rate what they deemed the one hundred all-time, greatest movies ever made. The General was ranked 15th!
Yet, in its day, 1926, The General lost money because of cost overruns, and the film’s producer sold Keaton’s contract to MGM, the studio that had already proved with its mishandling of Laurel & Hardy, Jimmy Durante and the Marx Brothers, that no one in charge at MGM, especially the otherwise canny Louis B. Mayer, had any appreciation of comedy. Mayer and MGM continued to prove its disregard for comedy with its mishandling of Red Skelton.
The General was based on Civil War history: The Great Locomotive Chase of 1862. The actual chase took place when Union forces captured a Southern train outside of Atlanta, Georgie, unhitched passenger carriages and then drove the locomotive (named The General) and three boxcars north to Chattanooga, Tennessee, destroying Rebel telegraph communication and other locomotives along the way, but missed two that enabled the Confederate soldiers to give chase.
In Buster’s movie, the roles of the Union and Rebel forces were reversed. Buster played the undersized young man that Rebel Army recruiters rejected, not knowing he was a locomotive engineer. When Union forces steal The General during one of its stops, Buster chases his locomotive by every means available. After he recaptures the locomotive, he then has to keep his engine fired up and running as the Union forces chasing him in their troop train.
Keaton Senior, Buster’s father, plays one the Union troop commanders chasing Buster. Joe was an athletic comedian who taught Buster how to take falls and faux fight when The Keaton Family was in Vaudeville (where Buster began on stage at age four).
Marion Mack, who broke into movies as one of Sennett’s famed bathing beauties, nicely played Buster’s slightly dizzy girlfriend, who is unwittingly on board for part of the long chase.
Although The General is an action picture, it provides both laughs and thrills aplenty, and a romance that bookends the movie rather than interrupts it. Above all, it remains a superb demonstration of a great comedy mind at work during Keaton’s top form and access to resources (1920–1930).
Keaton produced and starred as well as co-directed with the esteemed Clyde Bruckman. For the climactic scene Keaton, who had an engineer’s skill, had a railroad bridge built over a fair sized river in Cottage Grove, Oregon, and a dam, upstream, so he could control the flow and force of the river to provide a smashing finish.
The film had about 2,000 people on payroll, including 1,500 residents from Cottage Grove and thereabouts as extras. Often, during breaks from filming, Buster’s crew divided into teams to play baseball, or the locals would field a team against Buster.
This is a movie without spoken dialogue; I won’t say ‘silent’ because it has a recorded sound and music score that propels the action along at a clip. Dialogue would simply slow down the action. The most remarkable elements about this film are Buster’s deft athleticism, strength and courage. He climbs all over the speeding, runaway train, even climbing over the locomotive to balance himself on the cowcatcher to remove logs dropped across the track intended to derail The General. This scene is breathtaking and surely must be considered visual poetry.
Buster never used stuntmen until his final movie, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to The Forum (1965) when he was dying of lung cancer yet still ran around. Throughout his career, he broke bones doing his own stunts; one time it was his neck.
Injuries may have slowed Buster down, but never stopped him working because his films had to be completed on schedule. If you’ve never seen a so-called ‘silent’ movie, or tried one and didn’t enjoy it, Buster Keaton’s The General is the talk-less movie you should try. View it here: