Mon, 18 Jan 2021

The General

Directors: Clyde Bruckman & Buster Keaton
Screenplay: Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman (adapted by Al Boasberg and Charles Smith)
Stars: Buster Keaton (Johnnie Gray), Marion Mack (Annabelle Lee), Glen Cavender (Captain Anderson), Jim Farley (General Thatcher), Frederick Vroom (A Southern General), Charles Smith (Annabelle's Father), Frank Barnes (Annabelle's Brother), Joe Keaton (Union General), Mike Donlin (Union General), Tom Nawn (Union General)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1926
Country: U.S.
The General / Steamboat Bill Jr. Blu-ray

The General

Much was made a few years ago by critics (including yours truly) about the audacity of George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road (2016) being essentially a feature-length chase sequence. And, while I in no way want to take away from Miller's undeniable conceptual daring and the near-brilliance of his long-in-the-making action spectacle, I would like to note that Buster Keaton got there first-88 years earlier and in much funnier fashion-with his masterpiece The General. Set during the first years of the Civil War, it opens with about 15 minutes of plot and character set-up, after which point the film becomes essentially an hourlong chase sequence on the railway, with Keaton's Johnnie Gray battling to prove his mettle as a soldier by taking back his beloved steam engine "The General" and outsmart, outrun, and outmaneuver a group of Northern troops (yes, yes, Keaton is fighting on the side of the Confederacy, an unfortunate narrative choice that is fairly easy to overlook given how fantastic the film is).

Keaton plays another variant of his now infamous screen persona, the stone-faced underdog struggling to prove himself. His Johnnie Gray is a railroad engineer who is in love with Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack), the daughter of a Southern gentleman (Charles Smith) who, along with his son (Frank Barnes), immediately signs up for military service when the Civil War begins. Annabelle looks to Johnnie to do the same, and he gives it his best, only to be denied because he has more value to the Confederacy as an engineer than a soldier (interestingly, in real life Keaton served in the infantry in World War I, just as his career in vaudeville was taking off). Mistakenly believing Johnnie to be a coward, Annabelle tells him she doesn't want to see him again unless he's in uniform, which leads to one of the funniest-saddest Keaton images, as Johnnie sits despondently on one of the coupling rods between the wheels of the engine and doesn't even notice it moving up and down as the engine starts pressing forward.

Johnnie gets the chance to prove himself a year later when a group of Northern spies steals his engine as part of a plan to sabotage the railways to keep the Confederate army from gaining ground. Johnnie, who we are told at the beginning of the film has two loves-The General and Annabelle-takes off in mad pursuit of his beloved engine and then spends the rest of the movie battling to keep it out of the hands of the Northern spies, who for most of the time think they are fighting against a group of Confederate soldiers, not a lone engineer. The set-up allows Keaton and co-director Clyde Bruckman (who co-wrote virtually all of Keaton's features) to orchestrate what is essentially the longest "trajectory gag" in Keaton's career, as they come up with and execute with constant cinematic brilliance a long-running series of action-packed visuals that are often as suspenseful as they are funny. Keaton is the oddest and most endearing and unlikeliest of the silent film stars; where Fatty Arbuckle (for whom Keaton began his film career as the straight man) had sheer girth and Charlie Chaplin had sentiment and Harold Lloyd had everyman charm, Keaton had a poker-face sensibility that constantly runs counter to his extreme athleticism and white-knuckle timing (in a 1928 newspaper profile, he is referred to as "the frozen-faced comedian").

Like many of Keaton's best films, The General features gags that are as much artful exercises in stuntwork and timing as they are orchestrated attempts at humor, and the fact that they work so well as both is testament to his brilliance as a filmmaker and performer. There are so many wonderful moments scattered throughout the extended chase in The General that it would takes pages to list them all, so suffice it to say that each moment offers multiple instances of comedic pleasure, some small and nonchalant, others gloriously grandiose. This is not surprising as The General was the most ambitious of Keaton's feature-length films, the first he made for United Artists, which gave him wide creative latitude to build on his previous works and expand his scope.

Keaton was a true appreciator of cinematic spectacle, and one of the film's most striking set-pieces is a full-sized locomotive traversing a burning bridge that suddenly collapses beneath it, sending the iron behemoth crashing into the river below. It's a great moment of cinematic physicality, made immediately uproarious by the stunned look on the face of the general who ordered its crossing. And that is largely what makes The General such a comedic masterwork: its seemingly effortless sliding between action and comedy, suspense and laughs, true danger and goofy slapstick (interestingly, it was not well reviewed when it first came out, with the reviewer for Variety calling it "a flop," while Mordaunt Hall at The New York Times wrote that it was "by no means so good as Mr. Keaton's previous efforts"). Despite those reviews, we can now fully appreciate how no one managed his unique balancing act better than Keaton, and it is a genuine tragedy that The General would be one of his last films, as the era of silent-film humor gave way to synchronized sound, a new world in which Keaton found he could not survive.

The Buster Keaton Collection Vol. 1: The General and Steamboat Bill, Jr. Blu-ray
Aspect Ratio1.33:1

  • DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
  • SubtitlesNone

  • "Reflections on The General" featurette
  • "Buster Keaton: The Luminary" featurette
  • Restoration trailers for both films
  • DistributorCohen Film Collection
    Release DateMay 14, 2019

    Both The General and Steamboat Bill Jr. look stunning in the Cohen Film Collection's new Blu-ray presentation. Both films (along with many of Keaton's other features) underwent extensive 4K restoration that culminated in a theatrical re-release in 2014. My only real complaint is why it took five years for these restoriations to find their way to home video, although there isn't much room for complaining once you have the films in front of you. The extensive work that went into these films is immediately evident, especially if you are used to previous home video releases, the best of which still feature notable age and wear. That is nowhere to be found here, as the restoration team has removed virtually all traces of film damage and signs of wear, but without noticeable artifacting or unnecessary smoothing of the image. Film grain is still present, and it looks pleasingly filmlike throughout. The image is crisp and sharp, with excellent detail and contrast. Both films also feature new scores that were composed and conducted by silent-film expert Carl Davis, and they both sound beautiful in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround. They took a little getting used to for me because I am so accustomed to the scores from the earlier Kino releases. Unfortunately, there are only a few brief supplements, two of which are made up of interview footage shot for Peter Bogdanovich's feature-length documentary The Great Buster: A Celebration (2018). In "Reflections on The General" (5 minutes), a number of the film's admirers, including Mel Brooks, Leonard Maltin, Ben Mankiewicz, Quentin Tarantino, and Bill Hader, talk about what they appreciate in the film, while in "Buster Keaton: The Luminary" (5 min.), the same interview subjects talk in general about Keaton and his career. There are also restoration trailers for both films

    Copyright 2019 James Kendrick

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright Cohen Film Collection

    Overall Rating: (4)


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