Saturday, February 18, 2017

Before I Die #597: The General (1927)

This is the 597th movie I've now seen out of the 1,187 movies on the "Before You Die" list that I'm gradually working my way through.

Johnny Gray attempts to learn the art of war on the fly. The
movie uses some visual gags that you can see coming from a
mile away, but most of them are pleasantly clever and
unforeseeable, with crisp timing.
Directors: Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton

Another fun Buster Keaton picture, featuring some sequences, stunts, and gags that are quite amazing, given the time that they were performed and captured on film.

The story has Buster Keaton playing Johnny Gray, a locomotive engineer based in Georgia just at the start of the Civil War. He tries to enlist as a soldier, at the behest of his lady-love Annabelle Lee, but is refused on account of the officers think his value lies in his being a train engineer. A dejected Gray is then rebuffed by Annabelle, who is only interested in a man who will fight for the Confederacy. Gray is soon unexpectedly drawn in to the fight, however, when his beloved train The General is stolen by Union spies and taken towards the  north. Gray pursues them and, through a variety of ploys, tricks, and stunts, reclaims his train and, coincidentally, Annabelle.

As with all of the other handful of Keaton movies I've seen, the plot and characters are almost totally forgettable. Keaton movies are almost purely about the visual gags, with any storyline or character conflict merely serving to set up the sight jokes. While this can often lead to dull films, Keaton was the absolute master, and I find him highly watchable. His eye for visual gags was one thing, but it was his athletic grace, agility, and timing that made so many of those gags effective. While you can occasionally see some of the jokes coming from a mile away, there are plenty of them that derive their comedic power from their unpredictability. Others are so quick and so well-executed that they're just as funny now as they ever were.

In terms of the larger cinematic landscape, the most historically impressive aspect of the movie is the scale. For a comedy, the sets, props, and orchestration of the film are incredible for its time. Large sections of the movie involve trains moving along railroad tracks, with Keaton's Gray character involved with countless variations of gags that rely on the movement and spacing between two or more locomotives, often in geometrically challenging arrangements. All of these things were done with real trains on real railroad tracks, chugging along and through real landscapes. I haven't seen another comedy from that era that incorporated such large and impressive set pieces. Since I've been watching quite a few silent movies from this era lately, The General stood out as visually impressive in this way.

That's 597 movies down. Only 590 to go before I can die.