Cinema of Silence
A Lunch community devoted to classic silent films.

A 1927 movie directed by Clyde Bruckman.

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You can't claim to know American movies unless you know Buster Keaton

  • Jun 13, 2011
  • by
I had two choices watching this or laugh out loud. When I wasn't smiling I was laughing. Buster Keaton's The General is a perfect introduction for those who may shy away from silent movies or who may think silent comics are too exaggerated and mannered. The story line is simple, but what Keaton does with it is genius.
Johnny Gray (Buster Keaton) is an engineer for the Western and Atlantic Railroad. He has two loves, his engine, the General, and Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack), a fine Southern belle. When war starts, Johnny rushes to enlist but is rejected. He's more valuable to the South as a train engineer than he would be as a soldier. Trouble is, nobody tells him why he was rejected. Worse, Annabelle thinks he may be a coward, and tells him she doesn't want to see him again until he is in uniform. Just then northern spies secretly enter the town to steal the General and take it north, destroying bridges and lines along the way, while a Northern army moves south. Unknowingly, Annabelle Lee finds herself on the train and is kidnapped. Johnny sees the General chugging away and races after it, determined to bring back the General. When he realizes Annabelle Lee is held captive, his resolve knows to bounds.
For the rest of the movie we are on one of the cleverest, fastest, funniest chase movies ever filmed. Keaton creates slapstick situations and sight gags that not only are funny, but that always are in character and which always are part of the specific plot point. And when he rescues Annabelle and realizes how hopeless her Southern belle helplessness can be, his exasperation is matched only by his love.
The General features a big cast, a major battle, fleeing armies, a failing dam and a spectacular moment when an engine tries to cross a burning bridge and everything collapses into a river gorge.
Keaton's timing and inventiveness are legendary; so is his risk-taking. He does his own stunts and some of them were dangerous. In one, he is lies back on the engine's cow catcher while the train is moving at some speed forward. In the distance is a railroad tie across the tracks. Keaton has another railroad tie in his arms. At the last moment he tosses his tie so that the end hits the end of the other tie and they both catapult off the track just as Keaton on the cow catcher passes. This scene has no cutting. The two ties fly off as high as Keaton's head. He could have been killed; instead we laugh.
It's amazing that in his older years Keaton could still walk. His body took incredible punishment for the laughs. Try falling hard backwards off a moving flatcar and landing on your back across railroad ties. His ingenuity is extraordinary. How do you build excitement out of an extended train chase? Both engines are behemoths and are on the same track. They can't pass each other. Keaton does it with endless bits of business. In fact, he does manage to reverse the chase at one point in an immensely clever moment combining logic and split-second timing.
What makes Keaton so funny and so contemporary is that he doesn't do double-takes. He barely reacts. But he's no stone-face. Keaton's characters are simply very serious fellows. Things happen to them. His characters don't react to events so much as they overcome them with honesty and good intentions.
My edition of The General comes from Kino Video and looks good. It includes two Keaton short films, The Playhouse (1921) and Cops (1922). In The Playhouse, Keaton portrays all the members of the cast, orchestra and audience in a stage show, including nine members of a minstrel act, the ladies in the audience and a trained chimp. In Cops, he finds himself in a police chase that is one amazing situation after another.
You can't claim to know American movies unless you know Buster Keaton You can't claim to know American movies unless you know Buster Keaton You can't claim to know American movies unless you know Buster Keaton

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More The General (1927 movie) reviews
review by . June 28, 2011
Three very funny classics
It is fun watching classic films. They are so different than modern ones. This is a set of three digitally mastered movies: The General, from 1926, lasts 75 minutes; The Playhouse, from 1921, is 23 minutes; and Cops, from 1922, is 18 minutes. Buster Keaton stars in all three. He was one of two writers and directors of each. They are in black and white, no talking. The films are clear. They are funny.      The General is the name of a train and Keaton is its engineer. It is 1861 …
review by . September 02, 2007
posted in Movie Hype
Pros: Keaton and the train     Cons: Glorification of the Confederacy (PC thugs need only apply for this one)     The Bottom Line: Ten bucks on the Washington Generals     International action superstar Jackie Chan stated in his autobiography that the first action heroes in movies were really the giants of the silent film era. This may not mean much to an intellectual such as yourself, as it's coming from a guy who once flew around a city …
review by . January 31, 2003
posted in Movie Hype
The debate concerning who was the better comedian; Keaton or Chaplin, will always go on. However, I would say Keaton was because Keaton was the better overall actor of the two. Chaplin was funny because he tried to be funny, but Keaton was funny because he never really looked like he was trying to be funny. No where is this more apparent than in THE GENERAL. It is one of, if not the, best Keaton movies ever made. Not much needs to be said about the plot because that's talked to death elsewhere. …
About the reviewer
C. O. DeRiemer ()
Since I retired in 1995 I have tried to hone skills in muttering to myself, writing and napping. At 75, I live in one of those places where one moves from independent living to hospice. I expect to begin … more
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[Below Synopsis may contain SPOILERS!]

The film opens in 1861. Johnny Gray, an engineer for the Western and Atlanta Railroad, has entered Marietta, Georgia. He is greeted by two young men who follow him to his girlfriend's home. The girl's brother announces the attack on Fort Sumter, indicating the start of the Civil War. He states that he will join the Confederate Army. The girl encourages Johnny to join the army. He attempts to, but is rejected because he is more valuable as an engineer with the railroad. The girl, believing Johnny was a coward because he did not join the army, rejects him.

A year later, a Union plot unfolds to hijack Keaton's train and use it to destroy confederate rail lines and break supply lines. Keaton spends much of the film attempting to foil the plot and keep the girl out of harm's way. At one point, he finds himself in Union headquarters, underneath the table and listening to Union strategy. He uses this knowledge to foil union plans.

The film closes with Johnny lighting a bridge on fire, which leads to a spectacular crash by the train run by the union officers. A battle follows. Through a series of errors, Johnny ends up defeating the union forces and returns a hero. As the film closes, he is commissioned a lieutenant in the Confederate Army for his bravery. The girl takes him back, and they kiss as Johnny salutes dozens of enlisted men. Fade to black.
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Director: Buster Keaton
Genre: Comedy, Romance
Release Date: February 5, 1927
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Screen Writer: Buster Keaton, Charles Smith
DVD Release Date: Kino on Video (October 26, 1999)
Runtime: 1hr 19min
First to Review

"The Keaton Classic."
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