One of the essentials of silent cinema, Buster Keaton’s “The General” plays at the Redford Theatre Saturday.
The 1926 comedy stars Keaton as Johnnie Gray, who has two loves in his life: his locomotive The General, and his sweetheart Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack). When the Civil War occurs and shots are fired on Fort Sumter, Johnnie is first in line at the recruitment office, wanting to be a war hero. But he is turned down as he is needed as a railroad engineer (which he is not informed). Annabelle assumes he is a coward and refuses to speak to him unless he is in uniform.
Then one day, Union spies hatch a plot involving The General. Not only do they steal the engine while Johnnie and the passengers are off the train having dinner, but they kidnap Annabelle who was still on board. Johnnie pursues The General in another engine, The Texas. Can he stop the soldiers and rescue his girl?
The film was based on an actual incident in the Civil War. In April 1862, Union agent James J. Andrews led a squad of 21 soldiers on a daring secret raid. Wearing civilian clothes, Andrews and his men traveled by rail into the Southern states. Their mission was to sabotage rail lines and disrupt the Confederate army’s supply chain. At the town of Big Shanty (now Kennesaw), Georgia, the raiders stole a locomotive known as “The General.” They headed north, tearing up track, burning covered bridges and cutting telegraph lines along the way. William Fuller and Jeff Cain, the conductor and engineer of “The General,” pursued the stolen train by rail and foot. They first used a hand-cart (as Buster Keaton does in the film), then a small work locomotive called “The Yonah,” which they borrowed from a railroad work crew, and finally a full-sized Confederate army locomotive called “The Texas,” which pursued “The General” for 51 miles–in reverse. During the chase Confederate soldiers were able to repair the sabotaged telegraph wires and send messages ahead of the raiders.
Andrews and his men were intercepted and captured near Chattanooga, TN, by a squad of Confederate troops led by Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest (who, after the war, was one of the founders of the Ku Klux Klan). Tried as spies, Andrews and seven of his raiders were hanged (a special gallows was built to hold all eight men). The rest of the raiders were traded in a prisoner exchange. In 1863 the survivors of the mission were awarded the first Medals of Honor (Andrews and the raiders who had been hanged later received the medal posthumously).
Though it was unsuccessful at the box office in 1926, Keaton considered it to be the best of all his movies, and critics and audiences eventually agreed. It is #18 on the American Film Institute’s list 100 Years…100 Laughs. It is also #18 on the 10th anniversary edition of AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies list.
The film will have live accompaniment on the Barton organ by one of Detroit’s best loved organists, Lance Luce. Luce is currently on the staff at the Fox Theatre, and regularly performs before and during intermissions at the Redford. He also performs at churches, and is a church organ consultant. He has recorded numerous albums, and maintains a busy concert schedule.
Show time is on Saturday, April 23 at 8 P.M. Tickets are $10, $5 for children 12 and under. Advanced tickets may be purchased here.