Combustible Celluloid
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With: Buster Keaton, Marion Mack, Glen Cavender, Jim Farley, Frederick Vroom, Charles Henry Smith, Frank Barnes, Joe Keaton, Mike Donlin, Tom Nawn
Written by: Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman, Charles Henry Smith, Al Boasberg
Directed by: Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 75
Date: 12/31/1926

The General (1927)

4 Stars (out of 4)

History Train

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I first saw it in college, crammed into a little viewing booth with my roommate. Normally, one had to wear clunky uncomfortable headphones for talking pictures, but this was a silent, so... no headphones. Which meant no music score either. Even under these conditions, I fell in love with Buster Keaton's The General. I've seen it many times since, strangely enough never on the big screen, but I still love it and consider it one of the movies' greatest achievements.

The plot is a simple chase. Buster Keaton plays Johnnie Gray, a railroad engineer. When the Civil War breaks out, he tries to enlist, but he is rejected. His services will be better used as an engineer, although he isn't told this. His girlfriend (Marion Mack) tells him that she will not see him anymore unless he is in uniform. Dejected, Buster sits down on the arm of his engine, and slowly begins to bob up and down as the train moves into its shelter. He doesn't notice until the last second, just before he goes off camera. It's a lovely shot, funny and heartbreaking -- a million different emotions wrapped up in it.

The next thing Buster knows, his train, the General, has been stolen by Northern soldiers with Marion on board (oddly, the North are the bad guys in this movie). He jumps on a hand-car and begins chasing them. The hand-car becomes derailed, and he finds another train, one that's carrying Confederate soldiers. In a frenzy, he jumps on that train, waving for the others to join him. He chugs off, without realizing that the engine was not connected to the rest of the train. Buster must now chase his train alone.

The rest of the movie is divided up into two chases; Buster chasing his train, and Buster being chased by the bad guys after he gets his train back and rescues the girl. Both sequences are kept clearly apart from each other, and both are brilliantly inventive. There are big gags and small gags, as Buster tries to figure out how to fire a cannon, and how to remove obstacles from the tracks. Some other gags are much too complex to describe properly in writing. They involve Keaton's superb visual timing.

Of course, once Buster has Marion on the train with him, things change significantly. He behaves slightly differently. At one point, when stoking the engine, Marion picks up a pices of wood that has a knot-hole in it. Since it's no good, she tosses it over the side. Buster looks at her for a beat, reaches for her throat, shakes her for a second, stops, then kisses her and goes back to stoking the engine. It's an extraordinary moment, seemingly improvised. It shows the slight cruel side Buster had which allowed his humor to work so well.

The movie ends patriotically with a battle scene, and the final sight gag, which is breathtaking no matter how many times you see it -- the bad guys' train collapsing the bridge and falling into the river. Then Buster finally becomes a soldier and gets the girl. The movie is meant to evoke the Civil War period by deliberately copying the style of Matthew Brady's photographs. It's yet another tribute to Keaton that he was concentrating so much on style and look, and still managed to make every gag work.

Clyde Bruckman is credited with co-directing the movie, but I suspect that he was little more than a glorified 2nd unit director. Keaton was too much in control of his production to let the advice of others interfere. My guess is that Bruckman simply photographed the scene while Buster was on camera -- a second set of eyes.

The General is a sheer entertainment, with certain value as a Civil War period piece. It's nearly impossible to describe in a review. Yet it ranks among the greatest movies ever made. No artist since had the sheer perfection of Keaton, in both developing gags, in using the cinema itself as part of the gag, not just a recording device, and in developing a proper character that would interact with his invented world. In other words, Keaton had to be just as accomplished as both an actor and a director. Of the great actor/directors, only Chaplin and Welles came close, but neither equalled Keaton.

Although I love all of Keaton's movies, and I generally prefer Sherlock Jr., The General is considered the best for two reasons: that it's the "biggest" of his movies -- the most epic and the most expensive, and that it was a critical and financial failure. It's one of those movies that historians have felt the need to compensate for -- to make up for the lack of appreciation it received in its day. But even if The General was a big hit, it's still an extraordinary movie to watch today.

I've seen this film so many times in so many dubious versions that I can say with all confidence that Kino's 2008 DVD -- and 2009 Blu-ray -- is indeed the "ultimate" version. It's so pristine and perfectly timed that I nearly wept with joy. It also comes with three possible scores to choose from: one by Carl Davis, one by Robert Israel (only the two best living composers for silent films) and a traditional organ score. (Sadly, the Alloy Orchestra score is not here.) The second disc includes a tour of the actual train, a tour of filming locations, some behind-the-scenes footage, and "introductions" with Orson Welles (beautiful) and Marlene Dietrich. We also get a montage of Buster's train gags throughout the years. This should go right to the top of your essential DVD list.

In 2017, Kino released another new edition of The General, a 2K digital restoration from Lobster Films. Videophiles may be able to tell some slight difference from the 2009 release, but to my eyes, they're both excellent. This one, however, is presented in pure black-and-white, rather than tinted/sepia toned. There are also two new scores. Carl Davis's is gone, and Robert Israel has recorded a new one to replace is old one. The other one is by Joe Hisaishi. Some of the bonus features from the 2009 disc are gone, though intros by Orson Welles and Marlene Dietrich are still here, with a vintage short film about restoring the train, and a new commentary track by historians Michael Schlesinger and Stan Taffel.

The 2017 release comes packaged with a second disc containing Keaton's debut feature Three Ages, also restored in 2K and also shown in black-and-white. (It was previously packaged, in 2010, with Sherlock Jr.). This disc carries over Robert Israel's score from the previous release, replaces a Lee Erwin organ score with a Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra score, and excises a third, piano score. This one also excises some of the more interesting extras from the 2010 release, and now includes an Alka-Seltzer commercial and a Candid Camera segment, both featuring Keaton.

It seems as if completists will need to hang onto all the releases, depending on your tastes for extras, music, or the presentation of the film. But if you simply love the film, this new release will do just fine.

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