Buster Keaton’s action-comedy classic The General turns 90* this year, and it is all the condescending things people normally say about someone lucky enough to be around for nine decades—still spry and witty, and surprisingly good-looking—only genuinely so.
It remains as propulsive as its namesake, the precious locomotive of engineer Johnnie Gray (Keaton) and, as the movie’s titles inform us, one of his two true loves. The other is Annabelle (Marion Mack), whose picture adorns the General’s cabin; early in the film, Gray gifts Annabelle with a portrait of himself before the engine.
The movie opens with Gray returning to his and Annabelle’s hometown of Marietta, Georgia, from a route to Chattanooga, Tennessee, at the outset of the Civil War. Gray (baddum-ching) attempts to enlist with the Confederacy, but is denied for being too valuable to the South as an engineer; he cuts in line and tries again, altering his expression and listed occupation, but is quickly discovered.
“If we lose this war, don’t blame me,” he scolds the enlistment officers via the titles. Indeed, Gray goes on to single-handedly save the South from early defeat, but only after losing first the General and then Annabelle to Northern forces.
Keaton looked for stories with situations he could imbue with humor, and he found an unlikely source in Civil War veteran and early Medal of Honor recipient William Pittenger’s memoir The Great Locomotive Chase (first published as Daring and Suffering: A History of the Great Railroad Adventure). The book details a plot by Union soldiers to steal a Confederate train, and burn bridges, and destroy tracks and telegraph cables behind them to cut off supply lines vital to the South.
With the exception of the ending, in which Gray wins back both his locomotive and his betrothed, The General accurately follows the historical foundation of the chase. The General itself was a real locomotive, and its conductor actually pursued the thieves in a handcart before commandeering another engine; in Keaton’s version, Gray first propels the handcart backward, then drives it off the rails before continuing his pursuit on a bicycle.
There is no political satire here. Keaton finds comedy in the circumstances at hand. When I first saw The General as a kid, it felt like a living cartoon, a maelstrom of action amid a sea of visual gags. I grew to appreciate the precision with which Keaton orchestrated the individual setpieces that add up to The General’s chaotic, extended chase. The movie is a masterpiece of visual storytelling and comic efficiency.
Film geeks like to argue over whether the work of Keaton or Charlie Chaplin (or, just to be contrarian, Harold Lloyd or Harry Langdon) is superior (a quarrel wonderfully illustrated in Bernardo Bertolucci’s underappreciated The Dreamers). As Walter Kerr asserts in the great and self-explanatorily titled The Silent Clowns, this is a waste of effort, though Kerr maintains that “Keaton wants more study because he was himself a student: quizzical, cryptic, dispassionate … compulsively analytical…”
Which makes The General sound less fun than it is. But one of the reasons it’s so beloved nearly a century after its release is that Keaton delighted in the freedom and suggestive power of the camera, and The General is full of images and sequences that stick with you, and that continue to guide modern filmmaking.
Though The General didn’t fare as poorly upon release as some sources (including Wikipedia) indicate, it also didn’t live up to high financial expectations. It languished for decades, little seen, and then often in poor prints.
Keaton, who died of lung cancer in 1966, barely made it to age 70, but he lived long enough to see his silent works rediscovered by audiences and have a new generation of filmmakers acknowledge his influence. The General, his tour de force, remains vigorous at 90.
*A note on The General’s age: Sources differ on whether The General was “officially” released in 1926 or 1927. It was filmed in the summer and early fall of 1926, and previewed that November. RJBuffalo.com’s well-researched post about The General cites a copyright date of Dec. 22, 1926. Multiple sources list a premiere of Friday, Dec. 31, 1926; the film was apparently scheduled for a late-December opening in New York, but the release was delayed. In Oregon, where The General was filmed, it first played in January 1927, although Portland’s landmark Hollywood Theatre is celebrating the film’s birthday this year with a statewide tour featuring a new score by Portland-based composer Mark Orton; the theater also turns 90 this year. Both look great for their age.