A silent, black and white film which has some laughs. 65%
Despite being the major creative force in this movie (looking at Wikipedia’s entry for this movie now, I seem him co-credited for roles such as director, producer, script writer and editing) Buster Keaton seems to humbly list himself in last position as far as the acting credits go, even though he is the lead actor in this movie.
In this story Johnnie Gray (played by Buster) is a railway engineer (…um…’just’ a train driver?) in America’s South. It also happens to be set in the spring of 1861. For non-Americans, that date may not mean much, but no doubt most Americans would recognise it as the time when the American Civil War broke out (very early on in the movie, at the train station Johnnie pulls into, you do see two young black males carrying luggage…it certainly doesn’t seem like the South is a Hellhole for black people…but then again, you don’t see anymore blacks afterwards). When his love interest Annabelle Lee (played by Marion Mack) wonders when Johnnie will enlist to fight for the South after seeing her father and brother do so, he goes to great lengths to do so, to some comedic effect. Marion makes for a feminine and attractive co-star. Keaton himself makes for physical prowess and derring do in his performance.
Being an ancient comedy (i.e. being in black and white and silent to boot), I think that the humour is no doubt dated for modern audiences (or at least adult ones), but I did chuckle more than once for its duration. E.g. when Johnnie contrives to be alone with Annabelle when there are two young boys inside the mansion with them (I have no idea who those two boys were meant to be…and it’s also quite weird in how Johnnie and Annabelle first meet…it’s by no means clear they are meant to be a’courtin’). The other scene which made me chuckle was when Annabelle takes it upon herself to do some sweeping on Johnnie’s train (which is called “The general”, hence the title) at a rather odd moment. A few seconds after that event, there’s a bizarre moment between him and her. Anyway, the humour for the most part is of the “slapstick” variety.
The Wikipedia entry for this movie mentions that there are different versions of this movie which have different running times. The version that I saw was screened on ABC1 (Australia) on 06/01/2014) at 1:50 a.m. Of course I PVRd it to watch later, as well as the cult Australian movie “Stone” which preceded it. Yet to see the Australian movie though…and I saw “The general” some weeks after I recorded it…and am writing this review weeks after seeing it too. Anyway, in case the following information helps identify which version of the movie that I saw, the running time from go to whoa is 75:30 minutes length. The score features a lot of piano solo music to it…I’m assuming some of the score references a funeral march piece one time, and I can definitely hear “The teddy bears’ picnic” later on…it’s played on a constant loop for a while and later on it is used to comedic effect at an apt moment. There is one scene where the advancing army of the North gets a jaunty score…which makes me wonder if this was a later version of the movie.
“The general” has a cast of 100s at times and the cinematography is nice at times…with shafts of light breaking into a forest. There’s also a probably a good example of special effects ‘magic’ in one scene where you see a lightning flash. For one scene with a shot of a train on a high bridge, I did wonder if that was a model, but I could see figures moving inside of it, suggesting it was not a special effect.
In favour of this movie is the good, easy to follow narrative structure and the way that the captions linger on the screen even when there is the occasional slab of text, making it less stressful to read the dialogue before it disappears.
One thing of interest to note about this movie is the fact that in it, it’s the South (as represented by Johnnie et.al) which is the ‘hero’ of the movie. This relates to my earlier query about whether the score for the advancing Union army was a later inclusion.
This is my first Buster Keaton movie. As an Australian, I have to point out that having seen this movie now, I can definitely see the homage being paid to Keaton by the Australian comedian Frank Woodley (of “Lano and Woodley” fame…in fact, they made a sit-com together as well, “The adventures of Lano & Woodley”). I was very impressed with his 2012 sit-c0m “Woodley” and found it funny and sweet. He leans on the kind of minimalist slapstick humour utilised by Keaton in this movie. In any case, I suppose I’m saying that if you are a fan of Keaton’s work, I can recommend “Woodley” at least…his other work/tv shows are too foggy in my memory to recommend.