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The student news site of Marquette University

Marquette Wire

The student news site of Marquette University

Marquette Wire

Peculiar Netflix Picks: ‘The General’

"The General" is a silent comedy made in 1926. Photo via
“The General” is a silent comedy made in 1926. Photo via

As a film that is nearly 90 years old, “The General” may seem outdated. Silent films generally are. The most famous, if not the only, silent film known to our generation is “The Artist,” which won Best Picture at the 2011 Academy Awards. For now, let us rewind the tape back to 1926 and focus on a true silent classic.

Lead actor and co-director Buster Keaton is one of the kings of silent comedy. He and Charlie Chaplin ruled the world of laughter during the silent film era. The 75-minute film may not be a first choice for a Friday night activity, but given its chance, “The General” proves to be a revolutionary classic from the comedy film vault.

The movie takes place in the South during the Civil War era. Johnnie Gray (Buster Keaton) is a train engineer with his mind set on enlisting in the Confederate States Army. Gray is turned down at enlistment because the army believes his occupation is too valuable to the Confederacy.

After a year passes, Gray’s fiance, Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack), learns that her father has been wounded in battle, so Gray takes her to visit her father up north. To get there, the two use Gray’s beloved train engine, “The General.”

While “The General” makes a rest stop, Union soldiers sneak their way onto the train and steal the engine with Annabelle still onboard. Johnnie steps back outside to realize his locomotive and fiance are both missing. From there on, the film dedicates itself to Johnnie Gray’s pursuit of the engine and his attempts to rescue Annabelle.

In pursuit of the stolen “General,” Gray operates another train engine he finds at the rest stop. The Union soldiers set up traps to stop the train, mistaking Gray’s one-man engine to be a dangerous group of Confederates.

The whole movie runs on the gag that Gray is built up to be something far more fearful than he actually is. In reality, he is a clumsy train engineer with no experience in battle. He gets himself into dangerous situations and, rather comically, escapes them by coincidentally being in the right place at the right time.

One scene shows Gray wandering alone in the woods, desperately searching for food. He breaks into a home to steal a freshly-made supper on the dinner table. The owners walk into the dining room, and he hides underneath the dinner table while they eat. Gray realizes he is hiding inside a Union officer’s home as they plan their next attack on the South. Talk about being in the right place at the right time.

Keaton best tells the narrative not through title cards, but through his facial expressions. Whatever he wants the audience to feel, his character dictates that emotion onscreen. If he wants us to laugh, he makes a funny face. If he wants us to feel scared, he becomes wide-eyed. Silent films rely heavily on physical features, and Keaton’s unique facial expressions help make the movie so enjoyable, even decades later.

I never thought I would laugh so hard at a silent film, especially one that is almost a century old. The jokes would undoubtedly seem outdated by now, but Keaton’s special sense of humor is the same kind we laugh at today. Physical humor is always relevant, no matter what era we are focusing on.

Do not pass on this one simply because it is a silent film. “The General” is one of the first staples in comedy film history, telling a timeless narrative and starring a cultural icon in Keaton. The film is a must-see for fans of both silent films and comedy, making audiences laugh just as hard today as it would have 90 years ago.

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  • K

    KofiSep 21, 2014 at 7:22 am

    Great article. Because of this review I will add this movie to my winter movie list .Thanks.

  • I

    Isaac VineburgSep 18, 2014 at 10:16 pm

    Watched this movie today because of this article. It is super funny! It’s also cool to see that old films still entertain. Thanks Tribune!