Buster Keaton’s favourite of his own films got off to a poor start in 1927. A flop at the box office and poorly received by critics (“the fun is not exactly plentiful” said the New York Times), it’s now considered to be one of the greatest films ever made. Is this high ranking down more to nostalgia for a simpler time or campaigns mounted by lovers of the hair shirt? Possibly a bit of both. But strip away the nonsense and you’re still left with something remarkable. The gags, for the most part revolve around The General, the steam locomotive of which Keaton is the engineer. The most famous of these is the one where Keaton, sitting on the rod which drives the wheels, is repeatedly lifted up and down as the train sets off. He, though, doesn’t notice, completely self-absorbed after being rejected by his one true love. Add to that the cannon sequence, the railway sleeper sequence and finally the blowing up of an entire bridge over a gorge – all done for real too – and you’ve got 75 minutes of visual comedy that would form the backbone of an encyclopedia of sight gags, if any such thing existed.
© Steve Morrissey 2007