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Friday, May 29, 2015

Recommended!: The General (1926)

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival is in full swing thru Monday. We've only taken in one program so far, but we've already seen: a Maurice Tourneur short film spun from a Grand Guignol play (in collaboration with key members of that theatre company); numerous filmed accounts of the sinking of the RMS Lusitania, with eyewitness accounts given stirring, heart-rending voice by actor Paul McGann; restored Technicolor footage shot at La Cuesta Encantada, aka Hearst Castle; and a look at the process by which the long-lost 1916 Sherlock Holmes (the first film of the character, played by famed actor/Writer William Gillette) was restored, prior to the North American premiere of the revival on Sunday (which we mentioned on the blog a couple of months back).

The program spoke to the diversity of silent filmmaking. Even without the accompanying, sometimes heroic, stories of these movies' rediscoveries the movies themselves are engrossing narratives in their own right. And since we're all about connecting online cineastes with excellent, new-to-them movies it seems right to talk about some of the silent movies available on line. And the first movie that came to mind was Buster Keaton's The General.

The Civil War-era story is a simple one, casting Keaton as Johnny, a good-hearted train engineer from the South who must cross enemy lines to save both his favorite girl and his beloved locomotive from Union soldiers. The love story is gently, sometimes movingly, played, and the photography is deeply evocative of the Civil War time period.

And dear Lord, the stunts. Decades before Mad Max or Bullitt, Keaton was starring in some of the most spectacular stunts ever captured on film, usually planning and directing them before stepping into frame (and into very real danger). Keaton's just status as a legendary comedian often overshadows the real risk he took executing these scenes (also incredible is his ability to retain his famous stone face even as hilarity and danger unfolded themselves around him). And Keaton and collaborators (including co-director Clyde Bruckman) seem to have listed out every single calamity that can befall a train engineer, and plotted each calamity into this movie (the climactic crash turned out to be the single most expensive stunt of the silent era). Watching Keaton piloting his engine along rubble-strewn tracks, clearing obstacles while dodging attacks from Union defenders, one often gets too caught up in the action to wonder just how the hell he's pulling it off. And that question lingers in the afterglow of the movie, adding to its considerable charms.

For this and other reasons, The General lingers happily in the mind, whether one can entirely believe what they saw or not. It's engaging, entertaining, and accessible even to audiences who might not think they "get" silent movies (and it's easy to find all over the place on line - don't be put off by the wrong movie description on the Jaman page for it, though we're working on that). It's a great place to start for newcomers to silent cinema, and to those for whom classic cinema is well-trod territory it feels like coming home.


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