Buster Keaton's The General
is in the very odd position of being one of the classic silent comedies,
while also being one of the least typical. When Keaton made it towards the
end of the silent era, fast-paced panto-mimic comedy had become commonplace.
Commonplace, that is, to audiences of the 20's. To us, today, the best of it
seems not only incredibly ingenious and funny, but also truly creative. But
look at any magazine of the late 20's, and you will find any number of great
visual comedies being passed off as "just more of the same," while
pedestrian little situation comedies, relying on lengthy dialogue titles and
involved plotting, were rating rave reviews for being "different" and
This demand for something new in
comedy may have been what prompted Keaton to make The General. Far
from being a mere answer to a public demand, it is still full of fine
pantomime and visual comedy. But it is slower-paced than any other Keaton
comedy, the gags are more deliberately spaced, and there's far more
substance to the story. Luckily, the story is so good on its own, and so
well handled, that the reduced comedy content is amply compensated for.
And we should explain that even with fewer laughs
than usual, it was still funnier than any three or four of today's comedies
The General refers not to
Keaton, but to his locomotive, and the story is essentially a true one—the
the daring Civil War raid led by Captain Anderson, a Northern spy who
penetrated Southern lines to steal a locomotive and wreck communications.
Walt Disney told this same story—quite seriously—in his The Great Locomotive
Chase. And yet despite its comic content, despite having hundreds of soldier
extras acting like the Keystone Cops, Keaton's version was an exciting
thriller too-and spun a pretty lucid account of the adventure.
The climactic battle
scene was staged on a mammoth scale worthy of Griffith, and was
exceptionally well photographed. The film ran for eight reels, and seven of
those reels were devoted to a chase—first of all, Buster chasing the spies,
and then the spies chasing Buster! No movie chase has ever been sustained so
long, so successfully, or with such an expert intermingling of genuine
thrills and hilarious comic situations.
The funniest single moment in
the film must surely be the most expensive gag on record. 'To cut off the
Northern pursuit, Buster has set fire to an enormous trestle-bridge spanning
a wide river. By the time the locomotive, with its cargo of munitions and
troops, arrives on the scene, the bridge is blazing merrily. The engineer
hesitates, when along comes a Northern officer with a hundred or more
mounted soldiers. "That bridge isn't burned enough to stop you," he says.
'You go ahead, and we'll ford the river."
As the cavalry descend into the
valley, the train puffs confidently forward onto the now-swaying bridge.
Half way across, it gives way, and train and bridge plunge into the river in
a holocaust of hissing steam, burning timbers, exploding shells, and
struggling men. From this carnage, there is a quick cut to a close-up of the
bewildered officer who gave the order. His expression shows quite plainly
that he is not at all concerned at the havoc he has caused, but is just
annoyed at having been shown to be wrong! Petulantly, be orders his
men to advance. A scene that plays much better than it reads, it remains one
of the screen's highpoints of purely visual comedy.
And The General, sadly,
represents just about the last really great comedy of the silent screen. It
was co-directed by Keaton and his old friend Clyde Bruckman, who came to a
particularly tragic end in the mid-1950's. Broke, depressed, believing
himself forgotten and unwanted, he borrowed Keaton's gun and shot himself in
a Hollywood restaurant. He was unaware that The General was still
studied, and enjoyed, the world over as a masterpiece of screen comedy.