The General 1927 1926 SD

Consider an opening sequence in “The General” (1927), his masterpiece about a Southern railway engineer who has “only two loves in his life” — his locomotive and the beautiful Annabelle Lee. Early in the film, Keaton, dressed in his Sunday best, walks to his girl’s house. He is unaware that two small boys are following him, marching in lockstep–and that following them is Annabelle Lee herself (Marion Mack).

He arrives at her door. She watches unobserved. He polishes his shoes on the backs of his pants legs, and then knocks, pauses, looks about, and sees her standing right behind him. This moment would have inspired an overacted double-take from many other silent comedians. Keaton plays it with his face registering merely heightened interest.

They go inside. He sits next to her on the sofa. He becomes aware that the boys have followed them in. His face reflects slight unhappiness. He rises, puts on his hat as if to leave and opens the door, displaying such courtesy you would think the boys were his guests. The boys walk out and he closes the door on them.

He is not a man playing for laughs, but a man absorbed in a call on the most important person in his life. That’s why it’s funny. That’s also why the movie’s most famous shot works–the one where, rejected by his girl, he sits disconsolately on the drive-rod of the big engine. As it begins to move, it lifts him up and down, but he does not notice, because he thinks only of Annabelle Lee.


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