October 19, 2012

The General (1926)
Grade: 83/100

Director: Buster Keaton
Stars: Buster Keaton, Marion Mack, Charles Henry Smith

What it's about. This classic silent movie is set during the Civil War and combines comedy with action and romance. After the South secedes, Buster Keaton attempts to enlist as a Confederate soldier, but is denied because his job as a train engineer is more vital to the Southern cause. His hottie brunette girlfriend, Marion Mack, shuns him as a coward, particularly once her brother (Frank Barnes) and father (Charles Henry Smith) are recruited.

One day, Northern spies seize Keaton's beloved steam train, The General, and head north with it, committing sabotage along the way. Keaton is in sole pursuit of The General via a different train. Little does he know that his former girlfriend, Mack, is held prisoner on The General.

The chase continues into Union territory, where evening descends. The Union spies disembark to meet with superior officers at a house, where Mack is a captive. Keaton, in search of food and shelter, enters the house, hides under a table, and learns the Union plans.

Inevitably, Keaton rescues his former girlfriend, sneaks her aboard the General, and steals it. He heads South, pursued by a train staffed by Union soldiers.

The chase continues to a bridge vital to the war effort, where Union and Confederate armies converge. Thanks to Keaton's heroics and timely arrival with Union plans, the Union soldiers are routed, and Keaton is made a lieutenant in the Confederate Army. He gets the girl too.

How others will see it. The General was one of the most expensive and ambitious films of the silent era. The stunt of the a train crashing through a burning bridge alone cost more than a million dollars in today's money.

Not too surprisingly, the movie lost money at the box office, and also received bad reviews, likely due to expectations. Keaton was associated with shorter films featuring slapstick comedy and romance. Producer Joseph M. Schenck fired Keaton, who signed with MGM as an actor and writer but lost artistic control.

Today, many decades later, the sad tale of Keaton's downfall as a leading filmmaker causes much sympathy among cinephiles. This, in addition to the overall quality of The General, makes the film surprisingly popular at imdb.com, where it has received an impressive 29K user votes with a lofty average grade of 8.3 out of 10. That score is high enough to place The General inside that website's Top 250. The highest grade of all comes from women over 45 (8.7) who may be impressed by the physical challenges of demure Mack's role.

How I felt about it. Keaton's everyman character is always enjoyable to root for, and he was indeed clever at devising and executing gags. The presence of a true dramatic plot enriches, rather than interferes, with Keaton's comedy.

Of course, it is a ridiculous coincidence that Keaton's girlfriend was held prisoner on The General, and even more implausible that Keaton would single-handedly recover both the train and girlfriend along with vital military intelligence. But the movie undeniably works, due to the power of its Horatio Alger moral: great things can be accomplished if you try.