If I had the time or the patience, I would write a long essay about the movie, and about Keaton, and about the many hours I've spent watching his stuff without even cracking a smile – too busy simply marveling at the ingenuity of even the most minor gag. As some who knew me back when I was in the deepest throes of Keaton-worship (bolstered by Chaplin-mania, which is headier but less lasting), I used to go on at length about the need for the revival of the silent comedy.
And then Mr. Bean hit and I figured it was taken care of.
(Also, I started having kids, and many minor and pointless obsessions had to be put on the backburner – at least until they were old enough to share them with me...)
But in the meantime, here's Giddens on The General:
Those of us who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, when television was awash in classic movies (Million-Dollar Movie, Shock Theater, The Late Show, and Silents Please were among the first schools in cinema—just ask Scorsese, Spielberg, or Coppola), are aghast to find that our children are often reluctant to watch black-and-white films, let alone silent ones. Especially those deemed to be among the greatest ever made. The imprimatur of the experts turns pleasure into obligation, and suddenly the notion of sitting through a comedy that had for decades convulsed audiences takes on all the promise of reading The Merry Wives of Windsor—the most annoying and witless of Shakespeare's plays, yet once upon a time thought to be a riot.
Still, for anyone who has never seen a silent picture or, worse, seen only speeded-up pie-throwing excerpts, Kino International has an offer you can't refuse: a spotless new transfer of Buster Keaton's 1926 epic, The General. Kino initially released a DVD of The General in 1999, which looks like every other version I've seen in theaters or at home—the focus is soft, and the tinted film stock is faded, scratched, and jumpy. The new edition, part of a two-disc set (most of the extras concern the historical basis for the story), is pristine, sharply focused, stable, and gorgeous.
Gorgeous is important, because The General is a peephole into history and by any definition an uncannily beautiful film. Indeed, for a first-time viewer, I would emphasize the beauty over the comedy. Many people are disappointed when they first see The General because they have heard that it is one of the funniest movies ever made. It isn't. Keaton made many films that are tours de force of hilarity, including Sherlock Jr., The Navigator, and Seven Chances (all available from Kino). The General is something else, a historical parody set during the Civil War.The comedy is rich but deliberate and insinuating. It aims not to split your sides but rather to elicit and sustain—for 78 minutes—a smile and sense of wonder, interrupted by several perfectly timed guffaws.