On Buster Keaton’s “The General”

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February 5 is the anniversary of the release date of Buster Keaton’s The General (1927). Unthinkable as it may be to us today, this film, now regarded as Keaton’s masterpiece, and one of the greatest films of all time period, was among Keaton’s least successful films upon its initial release.

Inspired by the photos of Mathew Brady and by Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, this Civil War comedy is set in Georgia in 1861. The title refers not to an army officer but the nickname of a locomotive tended by a crackerjack engineer played by Keaton. The army decides that the young man is more valuable to the Confederacy in his usual job as a train engineer than as a soldier. But his girl (Marion Mack) thinks he is shirking and shuns him. He proves himself worthy by a daring single-handed rescue of his stolen train deep behind enemy lines.

That sounds like a plenty serious plot — and it is. Some speculate that this is the reason for its relative unpopularity in the 20s. Not only are there fewer gags in the film, but audiences were unamused by the subject matter. It seemed in bad taste to make a comedy against a backdrop of the country’s greatest tragedy. This was a case of Keaton’s emotional detachment blinding him to the nuances of the audience’s emotions. Keaton merely found the subject interesting. Others were not amused. Today, at a further remove, audiences find the film breathtakingly beautiful, and can laugh at its silliness without being too stressed out at the nail-biting climax.

For more on the stage and screen career of comic genius Buster Keaton go here.

For more on silent and slapstick film history, including classics like Buster Keaton’s “The General” don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube

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