The General (1926) has endured as one of Buster Keaton's greatest features, because it perfectly balances the wit and physical abilities of his stone-faced hero. Today a near capacity crowd enjoyed a 4K restoration at the Egyptian Theater, with a new symphonic score from Studio Ghibli composer Joe Hisaishi.
Keaton stars as a train engineer who loves his engine and his sweetheart Annabelle (Marion Mack) more than anything. When the Civil War begins, he rushes to be the first to enlist, but is rejected because the recruitment office believes he will be of more use to the war effort as an engineer. When a group of deserters steal his engine, The General, with Annabelle on board, he proves that to be very much the case.
Made in the last few years of Keaton's silent feature period, The General is one of his most elaborate productions. Full of dangerous stunts and long, complicated train sequences, it also had a huge cast of extras, and featured one of the most memorable scenes of the silent era: the spectacle of a train going across a burning bridge and plummeting into the water. Of course all of this was expensive to produce, and when box office returns were poor, Keaton lost his producing privileges. So in a way, this was the last time he was truly free to create for the big screen.
While College (1927) was a showcase for Keaton's athletic ability and The Cameraman (1928) displayed the comic's skill in devising gags, The General is the perfect combination of both. The film is essentially an extended chase scene, and Buster is in constant motion the entire time: climbing, dodging and running like a perpetual motion man. It's exhausting to watch him. In the midst of all this action are some of the most perfectly-timed of his gags--many of them amusing because of their wry look at human nature. Basically, you get the perfect demonstration of everything that makes Keaton a legend.
It was interesting to note how affectionate the laughter in the theater was as Keaton rushed to save the day. I've seen many silent comics on the big screen, including Chaplin and Lloyd, and they've always received a positive reception, but I felt more adoration from this crowd. You feel for Keaton, but he doesn't rely on pathos to evoke emotion like Chaplin and he doesn't seem like he might turn on you if you say the wrong thing like Lloyd. He appears truly loyal and decent. Add to that his impressive skills and wit, and it isn't surprising that he would inspire so much admiration.
Hisaishi's score is jaunty, properly patriotic and a bit corny, but pleasantly so. He relies heavily on familiar tunes and folk songs, like Dixie and The Teddy Bear Picnic to give the score a feeling of solid Americana.
It's hard to believe this is the last weekend of SIFF 2016. Ending the festival with a classic from the early years of cinema was the perfect way to close out the archival program.