Considered to be the jewel in the crown for Buster Keaton’s career, the optimistic sparks of comedy are clear throughout The General. After throwing myself through a crash course of his earlier works, from the foreboding drama of Our Hospitality, to the articulate simplicity of College, I feel better prepared to view this Keaton classic than I would have been had I entered into it without the knowledge behind the growth of the silent comedians directing efforts. A comedic tale of unity within the Civil War period of America, Keaton strikes upon some of his most memorable scenes, a tremendous opportunity for the director and performer to spread his artistic wings and provide us with silent comedy that has the bravado and spectacle only he can provide.
The General sets Keaton apart from his competitors in the genre. He’s the fine balance between Charlie Chaplin’s storytelling techniques and merits, and the death-defying stunts Harold Lloyd would bring to the table in his underdog portrayals. With his work here blending the two with feverish adrenalin, safety is thrown out of the window as Keaton clambers around a train, pulling off high-risk stunts for the sake of a few light laughs. It’s rather admirable, the dedication he had to the craft in these early days of movie-making is highlighted throughout, and it becomes rather enjoyable. The General is certainly a place where Keaton shines through as an artist, certainly more so than the likes of Go West or Sherlock Jr.
Still, The General isn’t without its problems, and from time to time the comedy is rather light. It’s granted that some scenes will have dated poorly, or just be less engaging than they were nearly a century ago. Acceptable as it may be, those moments are still present, just not as many as I’d expected. Perhaps it’s unfair to judge a film made in the past on the standards of today, but that’s not what I wish to do for The General, a film that, even when it first released, would have had more than a few teething problems in its comedy. It’s certainly not the gut-busting hilarity many would tell you, but this comes from a man who gave Dirty Work and Postal a higher rating than a man risking his life to raise a few laughs.
Infamous, unforgettable sequences of comedy that have branded themselves on the cultural relevance of comedy for decades to come, The General is a finely tuned comedy that does, inevitably, mark the peak of Keaton’s efforts as both a comedian and an artist. A perfectly amicable comedy that has more merits in its production and innovation than it does in its comedy. The General doesn’t outstay its welcome, nor does it feel underbaked, pacing here is key, and Keaton balances everything perfectly well.