The General is a stunningly funny film. Thing is, I didn’t realise that until the third time I watched it. The first time, I spent the whole experience with my jaw hovering just above my ankles. The second, with my face pressed up against the screen as I spent my time trying to work out how. The third time was the one where I could sit back, relax, and take in just what an unbelievable genius Buster Keaton was.
And a lifelong fascination was born.
I honestly can’t remember when I saw my first Keaton film. I know it was Cops. I know it was after school, tucked in between The Tumbleweeds Radio Show and Doctor Who. I know it was on instead of the collection of weirdly-coloured snippets of silent films set to music that usually took up ten minutes of frustration and get-on-with-it-ness between the two. I know my reaction was, pretty much, WHAT THE EVER-LOVING FUCK WAS THAT? I distinctly remember hunting down more information at the local library and reading a tonne of books on Keaton– and following him, Chaplin, Lloyd, Langdon, Arbuckle, and the rest– and slowly building a desire to see more of these astonishing, hyperkinetic, masterpieces. But The General itself? I can’t remember exactly when.
But I’ve seen it over thirty times, now. I’ve introduced five children to it. When my grandchildren are old enough, I’ll introduce them, too. Make no mistake, I am an enormous Keaton fan. Sherlock Jnr, College, Steamboat Bill Jr, even A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum and his TV ads from the 60s, I’ve got them all. I’ve got books. I’ve got a picture of me arm in arm with Buster’s statue outside the Museum of Film History in Hollywood. I have a personalised caricature hanging in my bathroom. I am an enormous fan.
And it started with The General. To call it brilliant is to do it a disservice. It is hilarious. It is daring. It is edge-of-the-seat thrilling. It is madcap, and wild, and epic. And it is silent, and 25-frames-a-second black and white, and you could film it in 2018 and it wouldn’t be half as good. It is a movie that traps lightning in a bottle, skewed beyond replication by the unique genius at its centre: Keaton is one of the three or four greatest movie stars to have ever lived, and nothing I can say does the man justice. As a writer, a director, and star, he is incomparable.
And The General is one of the greatest movies ever made. Simple as that.