Joseph Frank Keaton, also known as “Buster” Keaton, helped shape early American cinema in his works with machinery. In the 1926 silent film, The General, which is slightly based on true events, Keaton plays Johnnie Gray, a railroad engineer at the time of Civil War. This comedy focuses on redemption as a road for the main character to prove himself as a man. Before a hero, accidental or not, can rise, he must fall. Gray goes through loss at the beginning of the film. First, he feels inferior for being unable to enlist as a Confederate soldier. Then, Annabelle (played by Marion Mack), the woman he loves, believes he is unworthy of being spoken to for not enlisting (although it was a misunderstanding). Lastly, his two loves, the locomotive steam engine, “The General,” and Annabelle, are stolen from him. After working hard to retrieve both Annabelle and his engine back, Gray manages to redeem himself. He feels more complete at the end when he is finally allowed to enlist as a lieutenant because of his heroic efforts to save the Confederate army. Although he is clumsy and outcast by the woman he loves and other members in his town, he displays sheer determination throughout the film. Ultimately, The General expresses that in American culture, masculinity is a trait that must be proven to gain the respect of others.
Although the film is set during the Civil War, I believe the film pokes fun at how men are perceived throughout time. To be a true and fulfilled man in this film (and typically in times of war), you must be able to proudly serve your nation. This could go along with a general theme during the 1920s when this was filmed. According to Celebrity Culture and the American Dream, “Throughout the 1920s, ads chided men for being weaklings, embarrassments to their gender, and disappointments to their wives” (67). So, because he is not able to initially fulfill this stereotype of what a man should be at this time (which was to be a soldier), Johnnie Gray is “Othered” by himself, Annabelle, and her family. This message about masculinity could be understood based on how Johnnie Gray feels about his ordeals even though the genre is comedy.
Perhaps it was also because of this setting that The General did not do so well initially. Although the magazine, Sight & Sound, regards film as number 34 on “50 Greatest Films of All Time” in 2012, it had low attendance and harsh reviews when it was first released. In an era of progression, looking back on the past and celebrating Confederacy in any matter was probably not well received. Potential viewers at the time would certainly include the working class. Based on an analysis from one of History 110’s blog, “inequality was extremely evident between all classes.” Men, women, rich, poor, and people of color, especially African Americans, all had reason to not watch this film. Why would a film set in the Civil War, when the country was divided and slavery was an extreme issue, be something entertaining to watch? It took decades before The General became popular and known as a classic silent film.
The General truly makes its mark on American cinematic history with a historic comedy. Buster Keaton creatively portrays Johnnie Gray, a man who fell from the good graces of the woman he loves and his own mind. His rise to redemption for both himself and others in proving his worth as a man who was at first unable to go to war is reflective of attitudes toward men in the 1920s. Even as a film for pleasure, The General succeeds in being expressive of the times.
Celebrity Culture: The American Dream. Karen Sternheimer, 2015. New York, NY. Print.
“The 50 Greatest Films of All Time | Sight & Sound.” British Film Institute, http://www.bfi.org.uk/news/50-greatest-films-all-time.
The General. Dir. Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton. Perf. Buster Keaton, Marion Mack and Glen Cavender. United Artists, 1926. Kanopy. Web. 20 July 2018.
Title: The General
Director: Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton
Release Date: 1926
Cast: Buster Keaton, Marion Mack, Glen Cavender
Producer: United Artists
- Producer (uncredited): Buster Keaton
- Executive producer (uncredited): Joseph M. Schenck
Screenwriter: Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman
IMDB Page for “The General”