Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The General (1926)

Seen: On 35mm at the Somerville Theatre, with live musical accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis.

The Somerville Theatre (one of my absolute favorite local theaters) has been doing a series of silent films on the big screen with original musical accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis, and I think that is just a super swell idea. I'd heard Jeff's fantastic keyboarding at the Sci-Fi Marathon a few years ago, and have since wanted to see more silents with live music. When The General popped up on their schedule, I knew that was my priority. Set in the early days of the Civil War, the film stars Buster Keaton as Southern train engineer Johnnie Gray. Though he is literally the first to enlist at his local recruitment center, the Confederate Army believes his skills are too valuable to make him a soldier, and he is summarily rejected. Disheartened and embarrassed, he returns to his love Annabelle (Marion Mack), who believes him a coward for not even trying to enlist, and he is left with nothing but his beloved train, the General. When his train is stolen as part of a Union plot to disrupt Confederate supply lines, Johnnie takes it upon himself to save the day.

Fusing the adventure, action, war, and comedy genres into one singular film, Keaton dared to present a brave Confederate fighter in a humorous (but never mocking) context. It's a strange combination, and a controversial one at the time, but miraculously it really, really works. Keaton's earnest charm, the exciting storyline, and the spectacular stunt work all come together for a thrilling and laugh-out-loud funny film. I realized something that I love about watching a silent film in a theater is the shared experience, the sense of communal response. I felt very aware of my own laughter and gasps of surprise, as well as those of everyone around me in the theater, and it was just a nice feeling. And while some people might be encouraged to talk more because of the lack of dialogue, I found myself more intent on the screen, not wanting to miss a visual cue or sight gag. Of course, this is not just an effect of silent film, but in large part due to the brilliance of Buster Keaton. His deft mingling of breathtaking action sequences and adorably ridiculous comedic exercises is always a pleasure, and I loved the death-defying high-speed (sort of) train action just as much as the humorous mix-ups and self-deprecating jokes.

One of the speakers before the film (I believe it was David, all-star projectionist) mentioned that something that made this movie special within Keaton's body of work was the character's competence. He isn't a clumsy, useless oaf who eventually manages to be the hero through trial and error, he's a mostly capable dude who just gets more capable as the situation becomes more dire. Which is why this is not a mockery of the Civil War South, and in face I found myself weirdly rooting for their side. Which has its own problems, OF COURSE, but I told myself since Keaton's character isn't actually a soldier for most of the movie it's not like I was rooting for the Confederate Army to win the war, I was just hoping this one Southern train engineer would get his train back. Because he loves his train.

The General is overall a satisfying movie. When Keaton isn't chasing down Northern spies and performing impressive feats of train action, he's hanging out with his lady Annabelle, who turns out to be pretty cool. She learns how to drive a train within a span of a few minutes, and totally helps Johnnie fuck things up for the enemy. Their love grows out of a mutual wish for destruction of assholes, which I respected, and together they blow up a bridge! Awesome! And, as I had anticipated, the music was fantastic. Rapsis is an expert silent film composer, and his improvised score was performed on a synthesizer set to imitate a traditional movie orchestra sound, complete with musical sound effects. Rapsis added an exciting, personalized layer to the screening and I hope I can catch more of his performances for the Somerville's series.


Pair This Movie With: Oh no, I don't know! What do you think? Another train adventure? More silent comedy? Or some wartime shenanigans?


  1. Hi Alex,

    Just a quick note from Jeff Rapsis, the accompanist for 'The General' at the Somerville last week. I'm glad you enjoyed it, and thank you very much for the kind things you said about the music. As long as it helps the film come to life, I'm happy, but your comments were very generous.

    I hope you can make it to some of the upcoming silents we have scheduled for the Somerville. If you do, please come down and say hi! And you're so right about the importance of taking in the film with an audience, which is really how pretty much all silent films were designed to be seen.

    I notice that last year you watched another Keaton feature, 'Steamboat Bill, Jr.' (1928), on video, and found some parts of it slow-moving. But watch those same parts (such as the hat-changing scene) with a large audiece and live music, as they were intended to be shown, and they really do come to life. You've never heard such laughter!

    Buster and other silent filmmakers such as D.W. Griffith knew what they were doing, and a big reason was that many spent years on stage in front of live audiences before they went into the movies. So they knew in their bones what would work and what wouldn't, and how to shape a story and scenes for a large audience.

    It's just one of those things that people need to know to understand why people first fell in love with the movies. The next two films we have at the Somerville are Harold Lloyd features, and perhaps no one in the silent era knew how to "play an audience" better than Lloyd. 'Safety Last' (1923) in particular is one of the great thrill rides of the cinema, even today, when shown in front of a live audience, so I'm really looking forward to doing that one in October.

    Thanks again, Alex, and hope to see you at upcoming screenings! All the best!

    1. Thanks for reading, Jeff! I'm hoping to catch Safety Last! in October since I've never seen it, and I definitely want to do the Terrorthon if I'm free. Your NH performance sounds great but I don't have a way to get there and I'm busy that day anyway. Good luck and have fun, see you at future screenings!

  2. P.S. If you're eager to see another Keaton feature that's quite different from 'The General,' we're running 'The Navigator' (1924) on Sunday, Aug. 25 at 4:30 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H. It's another great Keaton/audience experience, and also the theater itself is worth the trip up. Named the best movie theater in New England by Yankee Magazine!

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