As many accolades as The General has received over the years, it would seem likely that it was greeted to widespread critical acclaim and box office success upon its release. Sadly, this was not the case. The General received a good number of negative reviews from such well known periodicals as The New York Times, Variety, and The Los Angeles Times. Worse yet, the film lost money at the box office. The General only grossed $474,264, $300,000 less than Mr. Keaton's previous film, The Battling Butler (1926). Its negative cost alone was $415,232. In all The General cost $750,000 to make. In some respects, The General was the Heaven's Gate (1980) of its time. Sadly, because of the failure of The General at the box office, Buster Keaton would never again be trusted with total control over one of his motion pictures.
While it is an undisputed classic today, in some ways it is easy to understand why The General bombed with critics and failed with audiences in 1926 and 1927. Quite simply, in many respects the movie was ahead of its time. The review of the film from The Los Angeles Times claimed that The General was "...neither straight comedy nor is it altogether thrilling drama." What The Los Angeles Times and other magazines and periodicals failed to realise is that The General was part of a whole new subgenre. The General was one of the first action comedies, the forerunner of movies ranging from My Favourite Brunette (1947) to Hot Fuzz (2007). If The General was neither straight comedy or straight drama, it was because it was both. Quite simply, The General was ahead of its time.
Indeed, both the setting and the story of The General were rather unconventional for comedies during the Silent Era. The movie was based on an actual event, the Great Locomotive Chase, also called Andrew's Raid, a military operation during the War Between the States in which Federal troops hijacked a locomotive called The General in Big Shanty, Georgia with the intent of meeting up with Major General Ormsby M. Mitchel in Chattanooga, Tennessee and tearing up the railway along the way. The General was pursued by its conductor, William Allen Fuller, and two other men. Mr. Fuller ultimately prevented the Federal soldiers from driving The General all the way to Chattanooga and the Federal lines.
The General very loosely followed the historical event. It starred Buster Keaton as Western & Atlantic Railroad train engineer Johnnie Gray, who is rejected from enlisting in the Confederate Army because his occupation is too necessary to the war effort (at the time railway engineering was a highly specialised job). Sadly, his fiancee Annabelle (Marion Mack) believes he simply did not want to enlist and refuses to speak to him again until he is in the military. A year later Annabelle travels on The General to visit her wounded father, even though she still wishes to have nothing whatsoever to do with Johnnie. Unfortunately, when The General stops so the passengers can eat a meal, Union troops hijack the train with Annabelle still aboard. Both his train and the woman he loves now in the possession of the Federals, Johnnie begins his pursuit, first using a handcar, then a bicycle, and finally another train.
While The General featured some of Buster Keaton's most spectacular stunts, it was also very authentic with regards to the details of the period. Three authentic, antique locomotives were used in the film. Pains were taken to insure that the costumes, from the uniforms of the soldiers to the clothing of civilians, were as authentic as possible. The film's look was in part inspired by the War Between the States photographs of Mathew Brady. Mr. Keaton would later state that he believed The General was more authentic than Gone With the Wind (1939). In many ways it is hard to argue with him.
For all the incredible stunts and the Civil War authenticity of The General, the movie ultimately succeeds because of Buster Keaton himself. As in all of his silent movies, Mr. Keaton is no clown. At no point does he mug for the camera or ham up scenes. Instead he plays Johnnie Gray seriously. It is not Johnnie Gray who is funny, but rather the events unfolding around him and the things which are happening to him. Johnnie Gray is the underdog that all of us have been at some time, the sort that all of us root for. More so than Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp and even Harold Lloyd's "Glasses Character," we can identify with Johnnie. All of us have had our hearts broken, all of us have had things go wrong on our job (even if it is nothing so big as a train being hijacked). We then do not so much laugh at Johnnie Gray so much as the circumstances he is in.
While today The General is recognised as a masterpiece, it would be years after its release before it would be counted as a classic comedy. Strangely enough, part of this was due to fellow silent comedy star Charlie Chaplin. In 1952 Buster Keaton appeared in Mr. Chaplin's movie Limelight. This created new interest in Buster Keaton's silent films. By 1955 interest in The General alone had grown to such a point that when New York City's Museum of Modern Art held a tribute to United Artists, it was the only film that had to be shown twice in order to fill the demand to see it. Since then it has only grown in reputation, to the point that it is now regarded as one of the greatest films ever made. Buster Keaton died in 1966, safe in the knowledge that his favourite film, the expensive Civil War blockbuster that had bombed at the box office, was now regarded as a classic.