Friday, August 22, 2008

The General (Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman) ***1/2

Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman

Cast: Buster Keaton, Marion Mack

Background: By 1927, Buster Keaton had already made a name for himself with some classic feature length comedies such as Our Hospitality, Sherlock Jr., The Navigator, and (my personal favorite) Seven Chances.

Story: Johnny Gray (Keaton) is a railroad engineer in pre-Civil War south. When war breaks out, his girlfriend Annabelle (Mack) urges him to sign up and won't speak to him until he's wearing a uniform. When he goes to sign up, he is rejected because he's more valuable as an engineer, but of course she doesn't believe him. Time has passed and he's now engineer of a southern locomotive called the General. The Union attempts to steal this train (with Annabelle on board), and Johnny must rescue both his train and his girl.

Thoughts: Definitely a night and day situation when comparing this with Buster's other 1927 release College. Interestingly, while that one was derailed by a racist blackface sequence, this film where he plays a man wanting desperately to be a Confederate soldier features no such racial stereotypes. The situation boils down to a stolen train, and Buster's attempt to retreive it. This leads us on a long and hilarious chase sequence, which eventually doubles back on itself. There's some really funny stuff here. My favorite gag involves his miserable attempts to fire a cannon at the other train. One complaint I'd have about this film is that the chase sequence often feels repetitive. Buster constantly leaps from the front of the train to the back of the train, and while the stunts he performs are very impressive, they don't get more impressive through repetition. Despite that complaint, this is still one of Buster's best films.

Postscript: The General was an enormous failure at the box office and the critics savaged it. It was considered a classic later on and is commonly considered one of the greatest films ever made. It was #18 on the AFI 100 list and Buster Keaton was #21 on the AFI's Greatest Stars list.

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