“There were two loves in Johnnie Gray’s life: The locomotive The General; and Annabelle Lee”
Clyde Bruckman & Buster Keaton’s The General, is considered to be one of the best silent films ever made. Why then, you might ask, did it earn no Academy Awards? Well the very 1st Oscars were for films released in 1927 & ‘28. The Academy deemed it ineligible, presumably because its world premiere was on New Year’s Eve 1926 in Tokyo. It didn’t matter anyway, since American critics & audiences originally disliked it, possibly because just 61 years after the Civil War ended, Keaton is the hero on the side of the Confederacy. It was a huge budget picture at $750000, and its lack of box office success ended Keaton’s independence as a filmmaker so he signed with MGM. But in 1989, The Library of Congress selected The General for preservation in the National Film Registry.
Keaton not only co-directed the movie, he co-produced & co-edited it, co-wrote the story, starred as Johnnie Gray, and of course did his own stunts. He was a masterful physical actor without precedent at the time, and equaled by few since. His athletic prowess in the film is amazing: He chases the train for hundreds of yards to catch up to it, throws props with pinpoint accuracy, and even carries his co-star, Marion Mack who plays Annabelle, effortlessly. This when Keaton was already 31 during the 3+ months of filming in a completely different era in healthcare. In 50 years in the movies, his only Oscar was Honorary in 1960 at the 32nd Academy Awards.
The General opens in Marietta GA in 1861. The country is on the brink of the Civil War. When Fort Sumter is attacked, most young Southern gentlemen join the Confederate Army. But Johnnie, a train engineer, is rejected because the recruiting supervisor feels he’ll be more valuable to the South in his current position moving troops & supplies than as a soldier. Even though he doesn’t realize that Annabelle is still on board when Union spies hijack The General, Johnnie is off chasing it using any means necessary – on foot, by handcar, bicycle and finally in another locomotive. The Northern Army intends to blow up the bridges along The General’s route to prevent the delivery of supplies to the Confederate forces.
The General is a funny chase picture with exceptional special effects for its time. I’ve included the full movie at the bottom of the Blog. It’s only 75 minutes long and well worth seeing. I recommend you watch it when you have an extra hour or so. 3 Stars!