June 08, 2004

The General, by Buster Keaton

Some while ago, Ian Hamet wrote a lengthy post about one of the great comics of the early days of the silver screen, Buster Keaton. And so when I was at Fry's Electronics the other day, and found a DVD of Keaton's The General on sale for the whopping sum of $4.95 (eat your heart out, Ian) I nabbed it, and tonight we watched it.

In this flick, Keaton is a train engineer with two loves--his girl, and his locomotive. And then the Civil War breaks out, and honor--and his girl's family--demands that he join the army. He can't, of course, because he's more useful to the South as an engineer, but his girl doesn't buy it. Snub, snub.

And then some Union soldiers make the mistake of stealing his locomotive, the "General". Keaton grabs the next locomotive, and they're off!

Let me tell you, this is some seriously funny stuff--it's like a live-action Warner Bros. cartoon. There are train chases, misfiring cannons, a damsel in distress, slapstick aplenty, plus lots of dangerous stunts--and then you realize that Keaton did all his own stunts. So did Daffy Duck, but somehow it's more impressive when Keaton does it.

The film quality was pretty good, considering; the low price shows up mostly in the soundtrack. It's a silent film, of course, so the folks who produced the DVD added a soundtrack of classical music standards played seemingly at random. There's a battle scene near the end with cannons and rifles going off, and big bursts of smoke drifting across the valley, all to the pleasant, peaceful strains of the Blue Danube waltz. For a moment I thought I was watching Dr. Strangelove.

It's not the funniest movie I've ever seen; the pacing is a little too slow for that. But it was definitely $4.95 well-spent.

Posted by Will Duquette at June 8, 2004 07:55 PM

Ian Hamet said:

And that's why I recommended the pricier editions: music that actually fits the action.

As I mentioned in my essay, Keaton deliberately began the pacing slow in his features, to build to a climax; thus the first two reels of any of his features are not laugh-a-minute experiences. Except, perhaps, Sherlock, Jr..

You know that shot in the final battle of the train and bridge plunging into the river? Most expensive single shot in the whole of silent cinema.

Okay, filmgeekboy will shut up now. :)

Lars Walker said:

Love The General. Love Keaton (I much prefer him to Chaplain, who never clicked for me). The shot where he's sitting on the tiebar (or whatever you call it) on the engine, and the engine starts moving, is for me an indelible film moment.

Will Duquette said:

Ian, I wondered about that. As the train approached the bridge I was thinking, "They aren't gonna....My word, they did! They just dumped a REAL LOCOMOTIVE into the river!"

So, OK, a pricier edition would be better. But this was a great way to give Keaton a try.

Lars Walker said:

Another joy of "The General" is simply the look of the thing. It appears, in many places, to be an animated Matthew Brady photograph (and I understand that Keaton was going for that very effect). I seem to recall that it was shot in Oregon, but the landscape looks very right.

Ian Hamet said:


Yes, many shots were based directly on Brady photos. Most of the film was shot in Oregon, especially the train chases. I think one of the town sets was elsewhere, though I don't recall where.

That shot of Keaton on the tiebar (I don't know the proper name either) encapsulates everything I love about his films.

Chuck Duquette said:

Not sure which version Ian has, but I was privleged to attend to attend a fuly restored theatrical presentation accompanied by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra a number of years ago. Each year they provide the musical support for a new restoration. They have done a couple of Keaton films and a number of others. Having a very clean and complete version with well synchronised music adds a lot to any silent film. I just bought a cheap version of The General myself but haven't watched it yet.
The pacing is slower than we are used to today, but those of us that are well beyond the age of responsibility should be able to settle into the pace of the film with little effort. The slower pacing rewards us with richness of detail if we take the care to look for it.

Will Duquette said:

I don't disagree; I'll just note that slow pacing becomes even slower when you've got a four-year-old and a two-year-old sitting in your lap.

Ian Hamet said:

Will, try them out on some of Keaton's two-reelers. Except for one or two subpar efforts (e.g. The Balloonatic), even the two year old should dig them.