The General (1926)

The Sauth Shall Rise Again!

Unpopular opinion time, The General is a good film but is not Buster Keaton’s best – I’ll start with the film’s merits. The General is one of several Keaton films set in a historical period and the film’s budget certainly pays off when it comes to recreating Marietta, Georgia circa 1861 at the outbreak of the American Civil War. There are great amounts of historical detail within every frame from the buildings to the costumes and the grand locomotive, The General itself. On a purely visual level, The General may be Keaton’s most visually stunning film, full of lush shots of Oregon landscape (although the film itself is set in Georgia) which would make even John Ford jealous. The destruction of the locomotive on the burning bridge is one the most ambitious shots of Keaton’s filmography. However, my favourite shot in all of The General occurs during the climax in which Johnnie Gray (Keaton) holds the Confederate flag amidst battle – the type of cinematic shot that is forever imprinted in your mind. The scores by Carl Davies are the most ideal accompaniment for Keaton’s films and The General is no exception from quirky moments to more epic and militaristic arrangements, as well as rousing standards such as I Wish I Was In Dixie.

I’ll always say that the train is the ultimate cinematic device and as skillfully (and dangerously) executed the stunt work is in The General with all its comic touches, the action doesn’t quite have the high stakes or heart-pounding intensity as action sequences in other Keaton pictures, leading to a film that does test my patience at times. Why is this?  Why am I more on the edge of my seat watching Keaton run away from falling boulders in Seven Chances or battling hurricane winds in Steamboat Bill Jr? If Johnnie had been an actual coward and avoided enlistment rather than his love interest being lied to that Johnnie didn’t even get in line to enlist (which in itself is quite contrived), I believe the stakes in the film would be so much higher, thus making the pursuit of The General from the hands of Yankee spies more intense and suspenseful with Johnnie overcoming of his cowardice being the character’s redemption. With The General presented as it is, Johnnie has to prove himself by overcoming lies told by others rather than his own character flaws, which I believe weakens the film’s narrative.

There is the pink elephant in the room that The General is a film in which the hero of the story is a loyal son of the Confederacy. According to the Thames documentary on Keaton A Hard Act To Follow, it is stated that Keaton choose to tell the story from the southern perspective as in 1926, veterans of the civil war as well people whose fathers and grandfathers had fought were still alive, thus Keaton didn’t want to rile up half of his potential audience by appearing to make fun the side that lost. This does raise the question as to how The General was received in the Northern states? The General was released 61 years following the end of the civil war, which to put in context, would be the equivalent of releasing a movie about World War II in 2006. The General only contains one moment which could be seen as a jab at the Confederacy in which Johnnie states in a moment of foreshadowing dialogue “If you lose this war, don’t blame me”. Aside from that, The General remains an apolitical film in which the civil war setting is almost immaterial to the story. The film makes no mention of slavery, secession nor is either side portrayed as right or wrong. Nor are there any of the usual negative stereotypes associated with the American south (although humorously the film does contain the Colonel Sanders lookalike general who always seems to permeate any fiction about the old south). I have heard it argued that such depoliticized treatments of the civil war in themselves aid the lost cause narrative, yet Keaton himself was not from the south, being a mid-western man born in Kansas. The viewer can draw their own conclusions on what Keaton’s authorial intent was.

To compare The General to Keaton’s earlier work Our Hospitality (1923), a film which holds a number of similarities to The General with its use of a locomotive, the southern setting and the grand scenery, I’d argue is a much more engaging and creative film. While there is much I admire in The General, of all Keaton’s silent features, it’s the one I’m least keen to revisit.

Don Juan (1926)

The OG Playboy

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The opening credits of Don Juan self proclaim the film to be “A Warner Brothers Classic of the Screen”. Well, this self-gratification didn’t aid the film over time as Don Juan has gone down in history more so for its technical achievements over artistic merit, being the first film with a synchronized pre-recorded soundtrack with additional sound effects using the Vitaphone sound-on-disc system (likewise some film fans might recognize Don Juan for footage used in the opening credits of Start the Revolution Without Me from 1970). As a result, viewers can watch the film with the same soundtrack as heard by audiences back in 1926 – not a new score or modern re-recording of the original. The synchronized sound effects themselves don’t add much to the film, nor are they well synced although this was new technology in 1926 so I can’t blame them.

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Don Juan is, however, a good swashbuckling romp in John Barrymore’s attempt to out-Fairbanks Fairbanks. Barrymore is a magnificent figure of a man, pausing every now and then to let everyone get a good look at his iconic profile. Contrary to the likes of Douglas Fairbanks or Errol Flynn, the titular character is less of an escapist fantasy but more of a tragedy in the classic tale of a man whose lust for women is his undoing; arousing from his own mother’s infidelity and his father’s response to such – there’s more implied sex than you can shake a stick at. But this is still a romantic swashbuckler at the end of the day (reportedly with the highest kiss count in film history at a whopping 127), and the film ends with the most classic of romantic images, the man and woman riding off into the sunset, perhaps not as cliché or worn out in 1926?

In classic Cecil B DeMille style, Don Juan is a film of biblical morality but is never a preachy one at that. At the beginning of the film, Juan is courted by sultry women amongst displays of decadence when he is still a child. However, in adulthood, Juan eventually comes to find redemption in Adriana della Varnese (Mary Astor) as the first woman he legitimately falls in love with and must rescue from the clutches of history’s infamous, sadistic Borgia family. The wide-eyed Mary Astor is the face of innocence and virginal purity if there ever was one, as we even see her unconscious body laid down next to a statue of the Virgin Mary just to hammer the point home.

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Among the film’s supporting players includes Willard Louis as Juan’s amusingly effeminate and theatrical attendant Pedrillo. It would make sense to have a gay attendant guide his many affairs when they arrive at Juan’s residence and reassuring each one that she is “the love of his life”. Don Juan also features Myrna Loy in one of her earliest screen appearances. There’s no real meat to her role as Mai, Lady In Waiting as she part takes in background scheming, but it’s great to see her at such an early stage in her career in a number of close-ups and lingering shots as well as many costume changes.

My one major downside to Don Juan is that I’m left wishing for more action, only getting some in the final 20 minutes with a sword duel and a Conte of Monte Cristo style prison escape. At least the film’s money shot does not disappoint, Don Juan’s dive on top of the stairs and onto his foe. It’s filmed in one take with no editing trickery nor does a stunt double appear to be used.

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Don Juan is an example of the excess and opulence present in many silent-era films from the grandiose sets to the never-ending wardrobe of costumes (even all the women still have contemporary 1920’s makeup despite its 15th-century setting). In the words of John Hammond – “We spared no expense”. Watching these movies on a TV at home (or dare I say from a dodgy corner of the internet) really doesn’t do them justice.