#18 – The General
That’s the drive and genius on display in Keaton’s epic 1926 movie The General. When we see Buster Keaton doing things, he's really doing it. Keaton and his production crew really bought and restored two real Civil War-era (era) trains. Keaton really taught himself to drive a real train. How did they stage the train crash scene? They bought a third real train and REALLY F’N CRASHED A TRAIN.
The Plot in Brief: Southern train engineer Johnnie Gray (Buster Keaton) wants very badly to join the Confederate cause in the Civil War. His girlfriend Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack) wants him to join up too. But recruiters want him to remain a train engineer; they think he's more valuable to the South in that capacity. One day a group of Northern spies steal Johnnie’s beloved engine, “The General,” and drive it north. Keaton takes off after it; he too steals a train and the chase begins. Keaton follows them to a Northern army encampment, where he accidently discovers that the Northern spies have kidnapped Annabelle to boot!
Keaton famously told his crew to make it “so authentic, it hurts.” For many people, The General is the Civil War brought to life on screen. The costumes look authentic, the sets look authentic, and as I mentioned earlier, they used a real Civil War locomotive and restored it to working order. The one thing you can always say about Buster Keaton is “The money’s on the screen!”
Feminists, take note! The 1920s was a very different time period. Marion Mack’s Annabelle Lee is the subject of some of the film’s humor, and not all of it is nice. At one point in the film, Johnnie is driving the engine and Annabelle is also in the engineer’s compartment. She's tidying up—she’s literally sweeping the floor because she’s a woman, see? He asks her to put some more wood in the firebox. She picks up the tiniest sliver of wood and tosses it into the firebox. Unimpressed with her efforts, Johnnie begins to strangle her. Then he stops, looks at her, and kisses her. I guess the kissing part makes the strangling part okay. As she goes about her business throughout the film, poor Annabelle is put through so much torture. She is forced to get into a bag big burlap bag that once contained men’s shoes. She is shoved down into the bag and roughly thrown onto the train. Then enormous boxes are thrown on top of her. Of course, it was a different time, and we can't hold the film to modern standards… but Marion Mack really “gets it” in The General.
The Pope believes we must resist passing final judgment on any film during its own time; we never have the necessary distance until some time has passed. When The General was released, it was a financial failure. No one went to see it, and some thought it was in "gruesomely bad taste." With the benefit of 90 years, the film has emerged as a unique masterpiece. Expertly made on a grand, sweeping scale, it’s the rare comedy that juxtaposes its humor with an absolutely authentic background and narrative (it’s actually based on a true story.) We are further away from the Civil War, so we can be more objective about that. I also know that audience tastes in comedy have changed; in 2016, we are more than willing to laugh at someone dying, as long as it’s a recognizable joke that leads to the demise. My College Composition class proved this a few weeks ago when they were more than willing to laugh at one of The General’s blackest jokes. I don't know what that says about us—are we more broad-minded today, or are we more horrible?
MUSICAL NOTE: The current Kino Blu-ray disc gives the viewer three choices of musical accompaniment. Go with the Carl Davis score; you will not be sorry.
“In nomine Keaton, et Grant, y spiritu Lee… Amen.”
I would like to thank the students in my seventh period College Composition class for their assistance in writing this column: Mohammed Ahmed, Holly Arguelles, Michael Baac, Matt Baclawski, Malina Behrendt, Anna Connelly, Lindsey Hendren, Will Jasutis, Liza Paskevych, Jermaine Patterson, Emily Perez, Brad Pohlman, Brianna Puentes, Joe Ramage, Marisol Reyes-Ochoa, Kurt Serafin-Olszowy, Jacob Strickland, Melanie Wadlington, and Thomas Yon. You are all the bestius.