Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Savant only intended to watch maybe half an hour of The General before an appointment, and
found it too good to leave. This new Blackhawk DVD combines the supremely entertaining
silent film with another of Buster Keaton's better pictures, the next year's
Steamboat Bill, Jr.. If you're already a Keaton fan, both the picture quality and the
choice of soundtracks - creative modern re-imaginings by the Alloy Orchestra - will appeal mightily.
If you haven't seen the pictures, you're in for a great time.
1927 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 76 min. / Street Date October 21, 2003 / $24.99
Starring Buster Keaton, Marion Mack, Glen Cavender
Cinematography Bert Haines, Dev Jennings
Art Director Fred Gabourie
Editors Buster Keaton, Sherman Kell
Written by Al Boasberg, Clyde Bruckman, Charlie Smith,
Paul Girard Smith, Buster Keaton adapted from The Great Locomotive Chase by
Produced by Buster Keaton, Joseph M. Schenck
Directed by Clyde Bruckman
Johnny Gray (Buster Keaton) is crestfallen when Confederate recruiters turn
him down, not knowing the reason is because he's more valuable in his profession as a railroad
engineer. Then Union spy Anderson (Glen Cavender) and his raiders steal Johnny's beloved engine,
The General, in the bargain kidnapping his dream girl Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack). The meek but
resourceful railroader gives chase and proves himself both noble and brave.
It's hard to encapsule Keaton's achievement in The General. It's a comedy with an epic
background that keeps slapstick and historical accuracy in perfect balance. It's playful but mature,
making war its subject without being cavalier about Union-Confederate differences. Officers and
soldiers aren't buffoons, and the scenes of commanders sending their men into battle aren't played
for laughs. There's one moment after a terrible blunder that prefigures The Bridge on the River
Kwai. We cut back to the officer staring at his terrible mistake. It's funny, but situationally
funny - the actor doesn't undercut his character to get a laugh.
The General is technically better made than most modern action films. The story is established
in two brief scenes before Johnny's train is stolen, and from then on it's wall-to-wall action
the difficult proposition of locomotives in motion, not the most trustworthy of props. The movie has
an art director but was really planned by Keaton and his engineer-associates, inventing clever
camera angles that made use of parallel tracks and clever camera mouns. It was shot on location
in Oregon and became an expensive labor of love.
The action is breathtaking because Keaton is in physical peril in at least 80% of the shots. Hanging
onto a train in motion is risky enough, but climbing all over it and leaping from car to car shows
Keaton easily equalling the risk factor of someone like Jackie Chan, a good comparison figure. Sitting
on the locomotive's cow catcher may look simple, but in reality it's too easy to slip or snag a
shoelace and get oneself run over. Think of that when Buster stays in character around the tons of
An example of the risk involved is seen when Buster sits on the drive arm of his locomotive, one of
those horizontal rods connecting the wheels. A railyard worker eases the throttle, giving us the
cute image of Keaton swinging up and down as the drive arm rotates. It looks easy, but accelerating
an old engine like that from a dead stop is no easy task for the engineer; one time out of three
the wheels spin and the drive arm goes nuts. (We see it happen later in the show.) It's like letting
out the clutch of a Ferrari in third gear - you're going to either stall or peel rubber. I may be
exaggerating, but Keaton could very well have been ground into mincemeat.
The gags during the chase are much more than simple jokes. They all make sense and were derived
from the historical locomotive chase from the Civil War. (Disney made a version in the late 50s
with the North as the heroic
side. Fess Parker played Anderson.) The destruction of telegraph cables and the sabotage of the rails
are all real. The technical layout and timing of some of the gags - such as the firing of a rail
cannon and the impact of its shell near a train half a mile away, in one shot - would tax a modern
The General lets Keaton play 'trains' with real trains, but he comes up with mechanically-oriented
visual gags that are breathtaking in their simplicity. The raiders carefully link their locomotive
to the back of Buster's train ... and we truck to the right to see Buster foiling them by
unlinking the last car. Buster is confronted with the impossibility of a box car appearing and then
disappearing from the rails in front of his engine, unaware of the converging side tracks that
bring it off and then on-line. I haven't seen René's Bataille du Rail, but for sheer
technical cleverness, The General still beats out later films like Frankenheimer's
The Train. It's inspiration is felt even in Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, when William
Holden gives his locomotive a farewell salute. Real Boys love trains.
Keaton and Bruckman's jibes at the military are light, but wryly stated. The only time they're
lampooned is when a dozen uniforms argue around a twisted switch that has stalled their progress.
The officers shouting creates chaos until an ordinary railroad man (a real man, in Keaton terms)
solves the problem with one whack of a fire axe. There's no substitute for a pro who knows what
Keaton's movies frequently had racist jokes, but in The General Johnny Gray has a lot of fun
with the stereotype of the helpless Southern Belle. Marion Mack is thrown about like a sack of
potatoes, mussed up, and knocked down by a water spout. Johnny constantly shows his exasperation
for her judgment - jettisoning a piece of fuel wood because it has an unsightly hole in it, for
instance. He finally throttles her, and then kisses her instead. Sure, it's primitive, but what
a perfect expression of male-female relationships?
Andrew Sarris once favorably compared Keaton to Sam Fuller and Jean-Luc Godard. A cigar burns a
hole in a tablecloth, giving Johnny Gray a cameo view of his lady love, now a prisoner. Both later
directors echoed this effect (Fuller framing a woman down a gun-barrel) but Keaton's is the only
use that's un-forced & natural. And in the 'artificial' context of a silent comedy.
Image's The General looks fine. It's a very good transfer of what appear to be original
materials, with original intertitles as well. Blackhawk cinema wrangler David Shepard has determined
the correct sound speed to be 26 fps, and he should know ... I thought that the 24fps
standard would have been set by 1927. Some Shepard silent features come with a choice of scores, but
this edition has only an excellent one by the Alloy Orchestra. It concentrates on percussive rhythms
and captures the always-changing (almost musical in itself) pace of the railroad chase. Sound
effects and subtle readings of gags are worked into the music.
Steamboat Bill, Jr.
1928 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 70 min. / Street Date October 21, 2003 / $24.95
Starring Buster Keaton, Tom McGuire, Ernest Torrence, Tom Lewis, Marion Byron
Cinematography Bert Haines, Dev Jennings
Editor Sherman Kell
Produced by Joseph M. Schenck
Written by Carl Harbaugh
Directed by Charles F. Reisner
William Canfield Senior, aka Steamboat Bill (Ernest Torrence) has the problem that
tycoon John James King's new Steamboat is going to put him out of business. Added to his misery
is his son, William Jr. (Buster Keaton), whom he has never seen, returning from college. Junior
turns out to be a mustachioed ladies' man instead of the tough guy pops expects. When dad finds out
that Junior is in love with King's daughter Kitty (Marion Byron), it's just too much.
Not quite in the same league as The General but an excellent comedy with some of Buster's
best character work and most famous sight gags, Steamboat Bill, Jr. makes a fine second
feature. Keaton and Charles Reisner quickly sketch a complicated backdrop for the comedy plot: a
bustling riverboat town where the local bigwig has monopolized all commerce. With his bright new
craft, King has his sights set on scuttling Bill Canfield's broken-down scow of a steamboat. Keaton
gets plenty of comedy by contrasting old and new, rich and poor, but succeeds best in the story thread
of the very non-manly Junior proving his mettle to his rough-tough dad.
There are some offensive jokes here, and not just eyebrow-raising gags where circumstances make Junior
look like a foppish pansy to dad. Keaton prances around with his college ukelele to
entertain a baby, but Bill Senior thinks he's just a Tiny Tim-style fairy. Keaton's initial
appearance, with a moustache and beret like a Frenchman, and a little dotted tie, is hilarious.
The real PC trouble comes in mistaken identity gags, where Bill accidentally thinks a black man
might be his son, etc. It's kind of shocking to see Keaton run to a stranger, and then turn away
because the man can't possibly his father. The man has a big nose, and therefore must be a Jew. The
anti-Semitism is shocking, but the truth is that 20s films of all stripes were rife with this kind
of material - and from the predominantly Jewish film industry, too.
Buster has some great scenes finding a new costume. In the hat-choosing scene, he momentarily tries on
his familiar pork-pie skimmer, and discards it in horror! Structurally, the movie is nowhere as sleek
as The General, but it has some of Keaton's most famous scenes. Wind machines, breakaway sets
and hair-raising sight gags are the highlight of the storm sequence, the one where Buster skids
ten feet on his face, with his legs straight up in the air. The wind blows him from his hospital
bed, into a barn, and out into the storm again, as if he had dreamt himself into a surreal carnival
The capper is the unequalled gag of a two-story wall falling so that an upstairs window perfectly
frames Buster as it slams into the ground. This was a job for surveyor's instruments; Keaton
had little education but must have had total faith in mechanical physics. An inch out of line (in
the structure-warping wind, remember) and he'd have been hammered like a tent peg.
The rest of the story is conventional but pleasing. Ernest Torrance and Marion Byron are fine as
Buster's comedic foils, and the film ends well enough. Its highlights remain in one's memory
forever, especially that storm scene.
Image's copy of Steamboat Bill, Jr. is the equal of its companion feature. This one runs at 24 fps; by
1928 I'm sure that speed was standardized, at least in America. The Alloy Orchestra turns in a playful
score using fewer percussive rhythms than the companion show, but has its own
odd melodies hammered out on banjos and metallic-sounding instruments. The syncopated musical sound effects
augment the comedy at every turn.
Savant heartily recommends this Keaton single-disc double bill, especially to viewers unfamiliar with the
comedian's amazing talents. There's nothing better to show a house-ful of relatives at a holiday
gathering, as everyone loves the comedy, and people can feel free to talk without ruining the presentation!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The General & Steamboat Bill, Jr. rate:
Video: Very Good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 2, 2003
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2003 Glenn Erickson
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