The General was shown to a preview audience in San José, California, during the first week of November 1926. A few days later it was shown in Glendale, California. According to Bert G. Bates in The Oregonian (Nov. 15, 1926), “Buster Keaton’s Oregon-made super-feature comedy, ‘The General,’ clicked 100 per cent when presented to a preview audience at the Alexander theater in Glendale this week. The somber-faced giggle producer has one of the greatest pictures of the year, and Joseph Schenck, who witnessed the preview, declared that it was undoubtedly the greatest comedy Keaton has ever produced and should earn $1,000,000 for United Artists.... The picture has laughs galore and will set a mark for Chaplin and the rest of the top-notch comedians to shoot at. Following the preview showing the audience stood and applauded long and loud as a tribute to Keaton’s efforts.” The General was copyrighted on 22 December 1926, and played in several cities in Oregon in early January 1927, but its scheduled December opening at the Capitol Theatre in Manhattan was delayed until Saturday, 5 February. The delay prevented Keaton from making a personal appearance at the opening.
In the Winter 2001 issue of The Buster Bulletin, David Macleod went through reviews in popular movie magazines that the general public would likely have seen.
* Bioscope (Jan. 27, 1927):
Excellent comedy for 1st class houses. It cannot fail to please a discriminating audience. Buster Keaton gives a performance of polished comedy.
* Picturegoer [UK] (April 1927): Buster Keaton as the engine driver hero of an American Civil War story, goes unsmilingly as usual through a series of amusing adventures. Marion Mack is his leading lady, and there is an excellent supporting cast. Capital entertainment.
* Motion Picture (March 1927):
Buster Keaton has evolved a mild little comedy of Civil War days. It’s a pleasure to laugh continuously but comfortably, with no painful side-splitting, while Buster inadvertently becomes the hero of the Confederate Army. He is relentlessly aided, throughout the picture, by the heroine, who is nothing short of an inspiration. Marion Mack plays this delightful brand of leading lady with infinite good nature. Don’t miss her and Buster.
* Photoplay (March 1927):
...Buster Keaton does spoof the Civil War most uncivilly in his new comedy. Buster is a locomotive engineer who saves a whole Confederate army single-handed. There is an undercurrent of heroic satire in the way Buster is always saving the moron heroine in crinolines. Anna-belle Lee is a gorgeous laugh at all the helpless young ladies of historic fiction.
* "Brief Reviews of Current Pictures," Photoplay (May 1927):
Good satire on war melodrama and excellent comedy thrills.
* Picture Play (May 1927) gave a negative review, perhaps unique among contemporary fan magazines:
What is easily Buster Keaton’s most ambitious comedy is his least funny one. Mr. Keaton’s task was to invest it with comic byplay, which he does, but there is an underlying solemnity in the proceedings which puts rather a crimp in the farcical treatment given them. “The General” is a one man show, a mistake in a picture lasting over an hour.
* Carl Sandburg, who was once also a movie reviewer for The Chicago Daily News, wrote the following, which can be found in Arnie Bernstein, ed., ”The Movies Are”: Carl Sandburg’s Film Reviews and Essays, 1920-1928 (Lake Claremont Press, 2000):
If they’ll put Buster Keaton at the head of the armies next time there’s a war his maneuvers will bring that war to a pleasant, painless and prompt conclusion, because the belligerents will simply die laughing. At least that is the impression one gets viewing him in The General, a Joseph M. Schenck production, directed by Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman, the star’s first feature for United Artists, and now having its first Chicago showing at the Orpheum Theater.... The play is chockfull of hilarity, pathos and thrills, such as when Johnnie chases himself with a loaded cannon; attempts to burn down a bridge and gets on the wrong side of the fire; shoots a cannon into the air and with fool’s luck hits the dam that floods the river and puts the enemy to rout. And if any young “modern” thinks short skirts and knickers an attribute to agility, let her behold the acrobatics of Marion Mack in hoopskirt and lace beruffled pantalets.... If you want a good laugh, don’t miss The General.
Buster Keaton said that The General was one of his three top financial successes. And Marion Mack said in an interview: “...we were surprised when it took off as it did. It was the audiences that made it such a hit; the studio never realized what a gem they had in their hands until the money started rolling in.” Yet, in the ledger books the film was a flop, with a domestic gross of only $474,264. No one has yet fully researched the discrepancy here, and no one has yet determined its actual earnings or loss, as opposed to its reported loss (there’s often or always a major difference between the two). Several theories have been advanced for this reported failure and its aftermath; here is mine.
Previous Keaton features had been released through Metro and its successor, MGM. Since Joe Schenck had just switched jobs, The General was the first of three films to be released through United Artists (a far less wealthy studio than MGM), and all three UA/Keaton releases have long been considered financial flops. When Keaton was forced to move to MGM, after his first couple of MGM features (which were fairly true to his "independent" form), he was placed in assembly-line pictures that, ironically, made far more money than his independent features had made. Could this have been due far less to the superiority of MGM’s product (as MGM would have had us believe at that time) and more to MGM’s superiority in booking clout over the fledgling United Artists? (In the Blesh biography, Keaton himself claimed that UA’s poor marketing process cost Steamboat Bill Jr., his final UA feature, $750,000.)
In any case, after a quarter-century of mostly neglect, Keaton’s silent films were “re-discovered” by audiences when demand for them rose after Life magazine printed James Agee’s famous silent-film essay “Comedy’s Greatest Era” in 1949. Since then, The General has worn the hearts of audiences and critics alike, and it continues to do so via DVD releases and theatrical revivals.
Go to:A Brief Overview of Buster Keaton