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.
Copyright 2019 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright Cohen Film Collection
Overall Rating: (4)
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