In 1926, Buster Keaton was at it again with The General, a silent comedy about a lonely train engineer who is pushed to the limit of sadness when his girlfriend denies to ever speak to him again after the army denies him the opportunity to aid the Confederate Army in the American Civil War.
Watching Sherlock Jr. made me a lot more interested in watching Buster Keaton’s filmography and when you’re looking through that catalogue, the first thing you are definitely going to see is The General. And since The General belongs to the public domain and is legally viewable (in it’s entirety) on YouTube, I had to see it.
In my review on Sherlock Jr., I outlined what my first impressions on the cinema clown were where I stated he was a master of the silent screen and of visual comedy but the movie I garnered these impressions from was 45 minutes long. As complete and vivid as it was, I still felt like I had seen a stretched out short film rather than a feature. Having this cinema legend bring those hilarious antics and trademark cartoon persona to a longer film and a wider playing field, I felt I was in for more comedy. Hmm…
Buster Keaton is a living looney-tune. I think that anyone who has seen him in a motion picture he’s directed can probably agree with me that he is a living looney-tune. The General does indeed contain Buster Keaton’s signature style of visual comedy and presents it over a longer runtime as previously mentioned. However the comedy doesn’t hit as hard or as lasting on the funny bone as Sherlock Jr.. It’s still really funny. Just not incredibly funny.
For a film titled around a vehicle that moves constantly without any obstruction, The General has some pacing problems. The comedy/action/movie doesn’t start until maybe 15 minutes in and there are quite a few moments where I thought “This isn’t adding to the story and it isn’t funny”. So either Buster forgot that action creates movement or maybe my phone deleted jokes from the film. However these moments aren’t that plentiful so there isn’t a huge problem there.
I have no problem with black and white movies. In fact I think presenting a film in black and white gives the filmmakers a larger responsibility to make an impact through story rather than fancy visuals. And I kind of like the black and white effect on picture (I find it aesthetically pleasing). However this film did irritate me slightly with it’s strict policy of “black and white covered in a thick layer of orange” toward it’s colour. I don’t know why the screen looked like someone stained every inch of the film reel with a coffee mug even though the film was released a year after Keaton used full black and white but it was a problem for me. I minor one but still a problem.
Pesky criticisms aside, I was impressed with The General as I was with Sherlock Jr. and also as I am whenever I see archive footage of Buster Keaton. The man’s a genius.
Sherlock Jr. showed me that Buster Keaton knows every single dust mite on set when it comes to stunts and special effects and The General is a great example of just that. There are some jokes in this film that make you go “Wow! Did he really do that?” and “Is that safe” but there was one stunt (actually more like a spectacle) in particular that really wowed me. There is a scene maybe 20 minutes from the end involving mass destruction which is apparently the most expensive movie scene ever shot in the history of film. Yeah. Buster Keaton.
I’ve only seen two films made by the great Buster and so far The General is my least favorite. I would say worst but that’s a negative word and negative words don’t describe The General. Signature Buster Keaton comedy, a story I didn’t particularly care about, a colour choice that slightly irritated me and a tiny pacing problem make for quite an enjoyable experience. If that sentence sounded off because there were more criticisms than appraisals, it’s because that one appraisal trumps the criticisms. Sherlock Jr. is funnier though.
What did you think of The General? Leave your comment on the side and don’t forget to follow my Instagram page for movie posters.