The General (1926)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The General</strong> (1926)

(On TV, June 2018) Never ask me to choose between Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, because you’re going to see the Tramp being thrown overboard. Chaplin’s highs are higher (The Great Dictator and Modern Times outclass nearly everything that Keaton has done), but for a consistent laugh-for-laugh basis, Keaton is the one I prefer. This is a weird thing to talk about in discussing The General, because compared to many of Keaton’s features (say, Steamboat Bill Jr. and Sherlock Jr.), it’s a far less funny film: the jokes aren’t that prevalent, and Keaton gets less to do on a physical comedy basis. But The General proves that Keaton could deliver a sustained feature-length picture that held together as a story rather than a series of gags: Here we have a Civil-War-era train engineer who, through a set of circumstances, finds himself chasing another train across enemy lines to retrieve his beloved, and then being chased back by another train. The film’s standout sequence is a shot in which an actual multi-ton train crashes down a river when it tries crossing a burning bridge—and it was shot for real, with no miniatures whatsoever. Recognized as the single most expensive silent movie shot (costing roughly half a million in today’s dollars), it’s a spectacular piece of cinema even ninety-some years later. The film itself isn’t as spectacular, but the hunter/hunted structure works well (and doesn’t have any later imitators) and there is a very funny joke late in the film when the rescued damsel decides to be picky about which bit of wood to put in the train furnace. The General is still well worth a look—but do try to find a high-quality version of the film in order to enjoy the details of the picture.

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