Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Day 104 - The General

The General (1926) directed by Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton

Keaton and Chaplin...
This is my first look at the other great silent star, Buster Keaton, who draws comparisons to Chaplin for obvious reasons. However, their styles are actually quite different. Chaplin was so famous and his Tramp so renowned that he became a figure greater than the movies he starred in. You are drawn to him when he is on screen because of his strange appearance and awkward mannerisms. You observe his quirks, you know his sentiments, and you're familiar with his traits. No one else in The Tramp's world is like him in any way. Buster Keaton, on the other hand, looks normal and unassuming. That doesn't mean he isn't unique or special, but rather that his characters are drawn from regular folk and in many ways more relatable. While The Tramp has his obvious drawing points, he is clearly his own man. We can relate to his sentimentality but we can never really be him. There is only one Tramp and that's Charlie Chaplin. For everyone else, there's Buster Keaton.

So what could Keaton do? For one, having only seen this one film I can say that he was every bit the stunt man that Chaplin was, likely even better. In The General, he hops from car to car on a moving train. He jumps straight onto a bicycle and starts peddling in one fluid motion. He drops thirty feet off a bridge into water. The stunt work in this film looks quite dangerous and he executes them flawlessly. While I didn't have the same kind of laughs as I did watching City Lights and Modern Times, I could see that Keaton could handle comedy easily.

The actual film...

The General is about a railroad engineer Johnnie Gray (Keaton) and the two loves of his life, Annabelle Lee and his locomotive The General. The Civil War breaks out in the South and men line up to enlist. Johnnie, in his best Steve Rogers impersonation, tries valiantly to join the fight but is rejected because he would be more valuable as an engineer for the South. Of course, being an engineer is not manly and thus poor Johnnie loses the respect of Annabelle who tells him, "I don't want to talk to you again until you're in a uniform." As luck would have it, both loves of his life get taken from him as Union spies commandeer The General with Annabelle on it. It is up to Johnnie to show his bravery and get them back.

The primary plot of the film is told in the chase. Johnnie must chase The General and once he gets it back, the Union soldiers chase him. While I enjoyed these scenes, unfortunately it could only hold my attention for so long. It essentially becomes an hour long action scene on tracks. There are only so many things you can do. That being said, I was pretty impressed by the array of stunts and action shots. I was actually quite impressed by the technical aspects of the film, as it uses a wide variety of angles and shots to showcase the action.

I also liked several shots. The most interesting one is when Johnnie is hiding underneath the table. There is a hole in the tablecloth and he peers through it with one eye and through this hole he is able to see Annabelle. We get a good look at her as if we were him staring out through that hole. I also liked the scene when Johnnie and Annabelle are escaping at night. Lightning strikes around them in a kind of cheesy special effect, but the memorable part of the scene is the lighting that reveals a bear in the background in brief flashes. A flash reveals the bear and then darkness, the flash reveals him a little closer then darkness again.

I don't know if it was the original score or not for the film (watched the Netflix stream), but the music was really great. It is dramatic when it needs to be, cheerful and bouncy in lighter moments and even a bit scary when you're nervous for Johnnie and Annabelle. It just reminds me how important music is in films. A soundtrack can really make or break a scene. This seems even more important in silent films when the music is the only thing you can hear.

Once it is clear that Johnnie and Annabelle would be safe, I feel like the film kind of dragged on in the end, which doesn't really bode well for a film that's only 75 minutes long. But overall, the film was enjoyable to watch, particularly in seeing Keaton for the first time. I will say that it's not a particularly funny film despite being labeled as a comedy. I'd categorize it more as an action drama with comedic elements.

Grade: B

1 comment:

  1. I'm glad you checked it out.

    I liked it. As you put it so well, Buster and Chaplin are very different, but both have strengths. I went on a reading frenzy about Buster after I watched this a couple months back (by frenzy I mean I read the WHOLE Wikipedia entry... ha ha) and a lot of his appeal is in his emotionless face. His childhood was pretty crazy too. He and his dad had an act when he was a kid where he'd get torn up. That's why he's so good at stunts!

    This movie is very critically acclaimed now, and I dug it too, but I guess when it came out it was a huge bomb. The idea of doing a silent comedy/action/train civil war pic sympathetic to the South was thought to be highly questionable. I guess it was expensive to make too. Apparently, this movie cost Buster a lot of artistic freedom for the rest of his career, because at the point this movie was made he was directing, starring, and creating all his movies with a lot of power and freedom, but his balls got cut after this. Ha ha. Weird how things work out over time.

    I see what you're saying about the train sequences, and how they seem long to us, but at the time I bet that shit was crazy! Like Star Wars when it came out! Ha ha ha.