The General (1926)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Johnny Gray (Buster Keaton), a train engineer, is in love with Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack). When the Union declares war on the South by firing at Fort Sumter, Johnny tries to enlist to impress his one and only. However, he is turned down because his occupation is considered to be more valuable than having another man on the front line. This does not impress Annabelle. She tells Johnny that he should not speak to her unless he becomes a soldier. When Union spies steal Johnny’s beloved locomotive, The General, with Annabelle in it, Johnny does not think twice about coming after the train and the girl.
“The General,” written and directed by Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton, is an energetic silent film that reminded me of the “Tom and Jerry” cartoons I adored watching during early mornings as a child. It adheres to a specific formula but it does not get stale because it is willing to increase the ante with each passing physical stunt.
In its first half, while heading to the Northern lines, the spies set up various traps for Johnny and he attempts to find a way to circumvent them. In its latter half, while heading to back to the South to let their people know of an impending sneak attack, Johnny and Annabelle end up the ones providing the traps. There is a wonderful balance in the entire arc and it is accomplished with comedic glee.
The picture does not just work because it is funny. There are real moments of peril when I was not quite sure whether I should laugh or take it seriously. But one thing is certain: I could not take my eyes off the screen. I constantly asked myself how one group will manage to extricate itself away from either being left behind or dying.
For instance, at one point, Johnny sets up a cannon which he hopes, upon firing, will derail the spies’ train. But his one silly mistake, the comedy, slowly changes the angle of the cannon, the danger, to the point where the mouth of the weapon is directly pointed at him. His situation turns for the worse when a rope somehow wraps around his foot and he has trouble loosening the knot. I was impressed; although not a word is uttered, every emotion is magnified by Keaton’s facial expression, body language, our knowledge of what is at stake, and the ever-present score.
The music adapts as the images on screen vary. For example, as the trains enthusiastically chug along the tracks, the music is upbeat and wild; as the trains slow to catch their breath, the music follows.
“The General” is pregnant with inspiration. I did not like the so-called romance between Johnny Gray and Annabelle Lee. I found the girl irksome and spoiled, a typical damsel-in-distress who needs to be rescued… even if she does not deserve it. When she gives him the cold shoulder because his attempt at enlistment was refused, I thought he needs a new girlfriend. Still, the film demands our interests by delivering one dangerous stunt after another without dialogue or CGI.