Although I've been a fan of Buster Keaton since I was introduced to silent films when I was a kid I had never seen The General. Today I had the opportunity to view it and while it is not my favorite Keaton (I think Seven Chances (1925) or his later bit roles take that slot) it has not only some brilliant physical comedy pieces but I gained an insight into one of favorite sight gags (Woody Allen's sword and scabbard mishaps during Love and Death) and am trying, with some difficulty to think of a comedy film that has really solid physical comedy (and not just dick and shit jokes).
The General is a fairly straight forward film: protagonist loves girl, girl gets kidnapped, protagonist chases after girl, rescues girl, girl and protagonist have to escape the clutches of the pursuing enemies, protagonist saves the day, and gets the girl. What makes the film is Keaton's sense of comedic timing, athleticism, and his dead pan expression. The chase scenes (after the girl and then away from the pursuers) are all set on steam engine locomotives - Keaton is the engineer of the locomotive named "General" - so much so that the trains become characters in the film as well as set pieces for action/comedy. Factor in Keaton performing his own stunts and you have some pretty thrilling cinema. In case you haven't seen a Keaton film, imagine a comedic actor with total control over his body and the physical prowess of a top notch traceur (a practitioner of parkour - i.e. the bad ass bomb-maker in the beginning of Casino Royale (2006) ). He doesn't use a stunt man - further drawing the viewer into the scene. The style of comedy he has, well I can only describe it as dead pan "Are you fucking kidding me?" - the quintessential reaction to Murphy's Law. However while watching The General you forget that these sequences are plotted and practiced and rehearsed - it's so well done it seems all accidental and that Keaton is simply reacting to events. That's what good movies are supposed to do. Often when I watch a movie, especially a FX heavy movie, I don't wonder how the filmmakers did it, I know how (recent exceptions being Casino Royale and the action sequences in Inception) and that lack of wonder jolts me out of the experience. So, in a way, it's kind of surprising that an action/comedy silent film nearly a century old can draw me in. There were several moments where in my head I said, "Holy Shit! How'd he do that? That's fucking nuts!" - if I had been watching it at home I would have rewound the scene.
If you have the opportunity to watch The General I whole-heartedly recommend it. Yes, it's black and white. Yes, it's a silent movie. And, what? - it's certainly better than some Will Farrell drek or a wanna be John Hughes teen sex romp.
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