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USA 1927
Directed by
Buster Keaton / Clyde Bruckman
93 minutes
Rated G

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

General, The (1926)

Synopsis: It is the time of the American Civil War and Johnnie Gray (Buster Keaton) an engineer on the Western Atlantic Railroad's locomotive "The General" has two loves - his engine and his girl, Annabelle Lee. When Northern spies hijack "The General" with Annabelle on board, Johnnie sets out to save them both.

Buster "Stoneface" Keaton is a legend of American comedy and the silent film era. Only Chaplin has a better-known name and arguably Keaton, because of his relatively limited oeuvre (unlike Chaplin he did not survive the introduction of sound) and more artistically spartan persona has a higher standing in critical circles. Made for $US415,000, at the time a huge budget, under the banner of United Artists, the production company set up by Chaplin with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W.Griffith,The General is a superbly composed film that bombed at the box office but is now recognized as one of the major works of American silent film and Keaton's best.

Although essentially comedic, do not expect to die laughing (as no doubt the audience of the day did). Yes there are gags, but not of the mugging, slap-stick variety, although Marion Mack, who plays Annabelle Lee, comes in for more than her fair share of humiliations. This aside, the largely understated humour is more in the doggedly determined demeanour of Keaton's screen character and the serendipity of things which happen to and around him. This accounts for one of the classic scenes from the film in which Keaton, sitting on the drive-rod of his locomotive, disconsolate at his rejection by Annabelle Lee, does not notice that it is moving off, lifting him up and down in a series of slow arcs. Jacques Tati would have loved it.

Based on a true story, the film has, particularly for its time, remarkably impressive production values and although set in Georgia but filmed in Oregon, Keaton went to great lengths to achieve an authentic look. Although the actualities of combat are distant, comparison with the work of Civil War photographer, Matthew Brady are not misplaced. The scene involving a real locomotive plunging off a bridge cost one-tenth of the film's budget and is reputed to be the most costly single shot in the history of the silent cinema.

The print showing at The Astor for a limited season is, like so many of the classic films presented by this extraordinary theatre, a fully restored version and in superb condition. It comes with an original orchestral score by Joe Hisaishi, who is best known for his ongoing collaboration with Takeshi Kitano. Silent is silent and The General will not be for everyone but for those interested in the history of cinema and screen comedy this is required viewing.




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