Why you really do need to see Buster Keaton's The General.

Deleted scenes, commentary, and more.
Nov. 18 2008 9:04 AM

Buster Keaton's The General

Yeah, it's silent. So what? You'll barely notice. It's that good.

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Silent movies suffer as home video. They were meant to be seen in theaters, where the audience morphs into a comedy meter, responding en masse to each gag. I've seen it in theaters enough times to know that a few moments always elicit gales of laughter, some of them fleeting by so quickly that you will be grateful for instant replay, like Keaton's running mount onto a wooden bicycle or the scene in which he straddles the pilot and averts disaster by using one log to get rid of another.

A classic minute in the history of movie romance (55:30 to 56:32) occurs when Annabelle tries to help him fuel the train, throwing wood into the furnace. She rejects one log because it has a hole in it and tosses in a small stick. Keaton, watching this, hands her a splinter. She conscientiously throws it in the fire, at which point exasperated playfulness gets the better of him, and he briefly strangles and then kisses her—all done so quickly that she remains entirely unfazed. A standard joke in Keaton's comedies (and Charlie Chaplin's, too) is that the world of silent movies is truly silent when a character's back is turned. As Keaton chops wood, facing forward, he doesn't hear the Union army passing behind his back.

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Most Keaton films have astonishing scenes that transcend comedy. In The General, there is an overhead tracking shot of Keaton and his train entering a smoke-filled tunnel. The most unforgettable shot, said to be the costliest filmed during the silent era, is one in which Keaton sets fire to a bridge, causing the Union train to crash into a ravine—prefiguring by 30 years the climax of David Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai.

Kino offers three soundtracks for The General, though the only one worth bothering with is the default musical score composed by Carl Davis in 1987. It keeps a straight face throughout, heightening without intruding on a magical film that is too brisk to bore and so absorbing that you may find yourself forgetting that it is silent.

Correction, Nov. 19, 2008: In this article, Marion Mack's name was originally spelled incorrectly. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Gary Giddins is the author of Natural Selection: Gary Giddins on Comedy, Film, Music, and Books, which has just been released in paperback.