It takes something special for a silent movie to appeal to me, because I tend to place such a high value on characterization via dialogue. And that goes double for comedy, where I bring to bear certain expectations for wordplay and witty repartee and whatnot. My earlier samplings (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Metropolis, The Passion of Joan of Arc) encompassed impressive spectacle that ranged from surreal to strange to somber, and I appreciated how each one told their story visually. But I admit I was somewhat dubious of The General going in, since I assumed I knew the kind of slapstick style it would employ.
I was right and wrong, and wrong in a couple of different ways. Possibly more than a couple. The General is considered one of the best silent movies ever made, was inducted into the National Film Registry the very first year the Registry existed, was one of Roger Ebert’s all-time favorite movies, and the accolades go on and on. And it’s all for very good reason. It’s a comedy in which essentially all of the humor is physical, but it’s never the kind of dumbshow clowning that makes me shake my head and conclude that way back in the day the public didn’t have a very sophisticated sense of humor. It’s smart slapstick with astonishingly precise execution, especially considering that the vast majority of it involves not banana peels and cream pies but steam engines in motion, railroad ties, water towers and collapsing bridges. And obviously all of it was performed in a real-world way (mostly by Keaton himself) and simply captured in long, unedited and unaltered takes.
But, as everyone knows, Keaton’s real gift was his facial expressions, which could sell any gag. He might be known as the Great Stone Face but I think that's unfair; he certainly doesn't do any pantomime mugging for the camera but his expression is constantly shifting, in subtle but meaningfully nuanced ways. Keaton’s reaction shots are absolutely priceless, and as much as I’m a proponent of bringing a character to life with their distinctive voice, through what they say and how they say it, Keaton is more than up to the task of animating a fully-rendered, sympathetic and memorable Johnnie Gray with the set of his mouth and the blinking of his eyes. There’s never any doubt what Keaton is thinking, what he’s communicating to the audience in response to each increasingly ludicrous development of the train-chasing, love-interest-rescuing plot.
So, with the one-two punch of funny stunt setpieces and Keaton’s exaggerated but utterly human processing of them, I laughed a lot while watching The General. Not screaming, losing-my-breath laughter, but genuine amusement nonetheless. And considering how many layers of artificiality had to be penetrated - the film is black and white, silent, made in a different era, set in an era even more distant - in order for me to be drawn into the story and open to its humor, even a half-chuckle of amusement would have been a triumph. I feel like I’ve said this before about other movies, but it absolutely bears repeating no matter what: The General is not merely “good for a silent movie” or “good for how old and primitive it is” but just simply good on its own merits stacked up against anything else. I would unequivocally put it at the top of my list of movies to show someone who was skeptical as to how movies ever managed to entertain people before they had sound and color. And hopefully, like me, this hypothetical first-time viewer of The General would be pleasantly surprised to have their unfounded doubts put to rest.