The following  review was first published in the January, 1997 issue of
Prime Monthly to publicize the Towne Theatre's screening of the film.
Buster Keaton

"It is perhaps fitting that San Jose's Towne Theatre is presenting Buster Keaton's masterpiece,
  THE GENERAL, since it was in San Jose that the film was first shown to an audience at a
  special evening preview on October 22, 1926 at the California Theatre."  -- William M. Drew
A Review of Buster Keaton's
by William M. Drew

Buster Keaton's masterpiece, THE GENERAL, was first shown to an audience at a special evening preview on October 22, 1926 at the California Theatre in San Jose. The film, which was presented in conjunction with the latest Richard Dix-Esther Ralston comedy, THE QUARTERBACK, attracted Keaton and screenland celebrities including his sister-in-law, popular star Constance Talmadge. They came from Hollywood on the Lark and stayed overnight at the Sainte Claire Hotel. Despite the fanfare, in an ominous prelude of THE GENERAL's 1920s reception by American audiences, The San Jose Mercury-Herald's critic, Josephine Hughston, dismissed the new film, writing that "it falls far below some of Keaton's other productions. . . .There is a feeble plot of a sort and considerable rather pointless comedy, although some of it is really funny."

Perhaps sensing a box-office fiasco, Keaton and his associates at United Artists took the unprecedented and extraordinary step of first releasing THE GENERAL in Japan in December, 1926, under the title KEATON, SHOGUN, before premiering it in New York City on February 5, 1927. Whatever its popularity in Japan, it met with a cool reception in America from both the critics and the public as the first San Jose response indicated. Notwithstanding, it has since become the comedian's most acclaimed film and the most often revived. The apparent lack of contemporary enthusiasm for the film may derive from its violation of standard rules regarding cinematic genres. Although comedians such as Chaplin in THE GOLD RUSH and Keaton in OUR HOSPITALITY had previously used period settings as backgrounds for their exploits, THE GENERAL was the one time in the American silent cinema that a filmmaker combined the genres of comedy and the historical film spectacle. Keaton's film is based on an actual event in the Civil War--the theft of a Confederate locomotive by Union raiders and the resulting pursuit involving the comic hero. Owing as much to D. W. Griffith, James Cruze and John Ford as to the slapstick comedy tradition, THE GENERAL was shot on a massive scale in an Oregon standing in for the Civil War South with authentic trains of the period. Unprepared for such an unprecedented mixture of genres, the American public and critics in 1927 failed to appreciate THE GENERAL despite Keaton's previous popularity.

Later generations, less structured in their cinematic perceptions, have been far more receptive to the most a typical comedy of the silent era. Although Keaton's hero is a Confederate partisan, the film is not concerned with the politics of the 1860s and it has managed to escape the clouds of controversy that seem to arise over all things Southern. Even today, when the playing of "Dixie" or a display of the Confederate flag can set off storms of protest, audiences respond to the indomitable Keaton who somehow manages to survive and indeed overcome the crises of history that swirl around him. Simultaneously devoted to his locomotive and the heroine whose love he seeks, Keaton's Johnny Gray transcends the passions of his time in his often-fumbling quest for the immediate.

Copyright © 1997, 1998 by William M. Drew.  All rights reserved.

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