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.

Go West (1925)

High Steaks

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Go West could be seen as Buster Keaton’s reaction to Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid but with the child in question being replaced by none other than a cow in this contemporary era western. The pathos laden film is Keaton’s most innocent picture and one that really tugs the heartstrings in which Friendless (Keaton), an aimless drifter who doesn’t fit in anywhere finds himself working at a ranch where he befriends Brown Eyes, a dairy cow who is tossed in with the beef herd because of her inability to give milk.

Brown Eyes (played by the cow of the same name) is cinema’s first and last bovine movie star (at least to my knowledge). Keaton shares a natural rapport with the animal and the chemistry between the two does come off on-screen. There is a human female in the story (Kathleen Myers) but Brown Eyes is the only woman who wins Friendless’ heart. I do have to ask though is Friendless an early example of a vegetarian since I do personally hold the standard that I can’t become attached to an animal if I eat others in its species. Then again Friendless takes no issue with the rest of the herd going to the slaughterhouse. The naivety and childlike mentality Friendless holds is best portrayed when he discovers Brown Eyes is to be sent to the slaughterhouse along with the other bovine – like a child who has only just discovered there is no Santa Clause. It’s hard not to get a little teary-eyed when man and his cow are separated.

One of the most memorable gags in Go West is the 3-part running gag involving Friendless sitting down at the dinner table just as the other men get up – one of those gags that’s funny even when you know how it’s going to play out. The gag’s third act ends beautifully when Friendless rushes to the table and manages to finish his meal just as the other men sit down, but just look at the face on Keaton as he leaves the table – so elegant and satisfied. The other alpha males on the ranch barely even notice Friendless as they all tower above him, likewise throughout Go West, Friendless is only able to come into possession of a tiny gun, could there be phallic symbolism with this or am I looking into it too much?

Go West features some gorgeous western scenery and landscapes with that hazy shimmer of heat, along with the early adoption of deep focus cinematography and the use of painted backdrops which impressively blend into the real-world background. The climax of Go West involves Friendless trying to navigate herds of cattle through the streets of Los Angeles to be sold at market. The herded insanity itself is impressive considering the logistics that must have gone into filming such a sequence but also the simple sight involving huge herds of cows walking through an urban metropolis is a funny image in itself. Move over John Wayne in Red River, Buster Keaton shows us how to rustle up some cattle!

College (1927)

School Of Hard Knockers

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Buster Keaton goes to college, it’s almost like the jokes write themselves in the classic conflict of jocks vs. nerds to stand alongside Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman as the other great college comedy of the silent era. At the film’s opening Ronald (Keaton) delivers a speech at his high school graduation on how books are more important than sports in perhaps the only instance in which Keaton plays a rather smug character. However, what really makes the speech memorable is that he delivers it while performing what is now recognized as the Michael Jackson anti-gravity lean. Needless to say, the speech is not well received and is followed by one of the most striking images in the film as Ronald and his mother (played by one of cinema’s earliest stars Florence Turner) walk through the torrential rain as the camera pans backwards.

College feels like a time capsule with its use of vintage college insignia and tropes from men wearing sweaters, varsity jackets, soda jerks, dorm rooms and pennant flags. The Los Angles State Normal School fills in the fictional Clayton University and like any college movie, there is no sign of students actually studying or attending classes. As is the case in Keaton’s other features, his motivating factor is all down to the love of a girl, Mary Haynes (Anne Cornwall) is the most popular girl on campus, yet she still has a liking for the dweeb. Keaton – an inspiration and a beacon of light for unpopular kids everywhere.

Watching Ronald attempt and fail at a variety of sports with his two left feet is such a joy to watch (with the location filming in the LA Coliseum providing a great backdrop), however, it’s made especially impressive considering Keaton’s athleticism and acrobatic abilities, it must have been particularly challenging portraying a character who is so uncoordinated when it comes to sports. The print of College featured on the Masters Of Cinema Blu-ray features a great contemporary score by Rodney Saur with some terrific recurring motifs and fantastic comic use of fiddles during the film’s baseball scene, making it all the more funny.

One of College’s most memorable scenes involves Ronald disguising himself as a waiter in blackface in order to get a job in a restaurant only hiring “coloured” waiters. Keaton evens performs this doing minstrel show walk (and even manages to roll over 360 degrees while carrying soup and not spilling it). The fact that such a thing is taboo just makes it all the funnier (of course the Masters Of Cinema Blu-ray release has to include a content warning). Likewise, the use of slow motion with the gag featuring the umbrella is surreal and out of place, not to mention it doesn’t quite work since everything with the frame slows down and not just Keaton with the umbrella, none the less it in interesting to such an early use of slow motion. The film’s climax even features a Ferris Buller style running sequence as Keaton runs through various residential streets and gardens, followed by the most bizarre ending to any of Keaton’s features and even a somewhat dark yet endearing final shot of tombstones. What! No Beans?

The Navigator (1924)

Anchors Aweigh!

In my estimation, The Navigator is Buster Keaton’s funniest film and the finest example of his use of physical space as he treats the film frame as his theatrical stage. Gags such as his “long walk” home or the intimidating painting of director Donald Crisp waving back and forth at the ship window are immaculately timed and staged. Or take my favourite gag in the picture in which Keaton is attacked by a swordfish while deep-sea diving and then proceeds to use it as a sword against another oncoming swordfish. It’s such innocent humour and the obviously fake swordfish props plus the fact that he even goes to the effort of bringing down a “Men At Work” sign with him just makes it funnier – It’s images like these which tickle my funny bone even thinking about it.

The Navigator 2

Errol Flynn eat your heart out!

The Navigator was filmed onboard the USAT Buford, a former warship which Keaton and his crew had free reign to use during the production of The Navigator, and take advantage of it they did, making the boat a character in itself. With rear projection yet to be a thing in 1924, all the nautical antics are filmed onboard the vessel

The Navigator was one of the several films in which Keaton plays a spoiled, entitled brat who can’t do anything for himself in the role of Rollo Treadway. After Rollo observes a happy, newlywed couple (in an early example of black casting in which race is irrelevant), he proposes to Betsy O’Brien (Kathryn McGuire) out of the blue only to be unsurprisingly turned down. A series of mishaps later finds the two alone at sea onboard The Navigator. Betsy is on an equal footing with Rollo, with her character also coming from the same, privileged, sheltered upbringing as Rollo, contributing to the survival of the helpless duo.

The Navigator

The cinematography in The Navigator is some of the finest in the Keaton filmography with its evocative lighting and some gorgeous shots. One such shot and one of the film’s blink and you’ll miss it gags, in the first scene which features Rollo and Betsy in their sailor costumes, notice how their shadows on the wall emanating from the candles they’re holding creates a silhouette of Betsy giving Rollo a kiss on the cheek with his arms around her, even though they’re not engaged in any such action. Likewise  during the sequence in which Keaton and McGuire are running through the ship in parallel tandem, notice the smile on McGuire’s face as she comes close to the camera. One the film’s of odder gags however involves a gramophone playing Wilfred Green’s Asleep In the Deep. With this being a silent movie, the lyrics appear on screen rather than being audible to the viewer in a gag which would have been better suited to a talkie.

When the seafaring duo approach the island of cannibals, it’s the closest a Keaton film actually comes to being scary in a horror sense, with Noble Johnson playing the chief cannibal – always a striking screen presence. This encounter leads to one of the greatest and most suspenseful endings in film history – well in this viewer’s most humble of opinions anyway. I don’t know if it would work for me if I saw the film the first time now, as when I initially watched The Navigator I was naïve enough in my film-watching experience for it to take me by surprise – and I will never forget it.

Spite Marriage (1929)

Buster’s Last Gleaming

1929 would see Buster Keaton’s last silent hurrah in the form of Spite Marriage, bringing to an end a decade of astonishing creativity for the great stone face – creativity that one would never be seen again.

Spite Marriage sees Keaton playing a character who is less naïve and more dumb. While this doesn’t hurt the movie in any way you can see how Keaton’s creative control was being watered down at the hands of MGM. Near the end of the film an insert shot of a newspaper article reveals the full name of Buster’s character in Spite Marriage to be Elmer Gantry – why he shares the same name at the titular character from the famous Sinclair Lewis novel is unclear. The object of affection for Elmer in Spite Marriage is the mean and manipulative Trilby Drew (Dorothy Sebastian,) who has a role which is less passive than Keaton’s other girls as she uses the dim-witted Elmer to her advantage. Keaton and Sebastian were reportedly having an affair at the time thus to question how genuine their on-screen interaction is.

spitemarriage

The playhouse at the centre of the film’s first half is putting on a Civil War lost cause melodrama, humorously complete with courageous, noble Confederate soldiers and overtly evil yanks. According to the DVD commentary, the play presented may be inspired by the 1895 play The Heart of Maryland by David Belasco. This assertion is also backed up by backdrops in the playhouse being printed with the words “Bosco Stock Company”.

Spite Marriage is more Chaplinesque than Keaton during the film’s first half from Elmer’s poor attempt to apply makeup to the mayhem he causes on stage during the stage play. The film’s most celebrated sequence is that of Elmer attempting to put knocked out Trilby to bed (good enough to inspire the film Roman Holiday some 24 years later). The sexy scene takes as much physical work on Dorothy Sebastian as it does Keaton, handling it like a pro as Keaton carries her like a ragdoll – I can only imagine how rehearsals for such a scene must have gone. Likewise, I feel the film’s synchronized sound effects do enhance the comedy from the cartoonish sound of Keaton walking to the squeak when Keaton is about to cut his ear with scissors when attempting to apply the fake facial hair.

1072g4Z38jwvQiEff7yJtbTjVtR

The film’s second half is more familiar Keaton territory in a section which harkens back to The Navigator. Sadly Spite Marriage is disappointingly light on stunt work. It’s clear MGM did not want to take risks on their contract star and the film commits the sin of having a stunt man take the place of Keaton. As a result Spite Marriage misses out on being top tier Keaton but the film is still a very pleasurable slice of comedy to bring film’s silent era to a close.

Our Hospitality (1923)

Deliverance

All of Buster Keaton’s silent films had a beauty and a grace to them, but Our Hospitality exemplifies this best. A mini-epic, full of beautiful, lush scenery and landscape shots; visually speaking, I consider this to be Keaton’s best film. Take the film’s finale as an example, as Keaton walks along the edge of a cliff with huge forest backdrops stretching as far as the eye can see or the equally as impressive sequence in which an entire dam is blown up. But the sequence which best showcases this idealised look at 1830’s America is the supreme majesty of the steam locomotive sequence; a predecessor to what would come in The General. This is one of the greatest sequences Keaton ever captured on film, with the music score on the Thames Silent’s version giving it (as well as the film as a whole), an even greater sense of awe. Filming as well the construction of such large-scale props must have been no easy feat. It’s a sequence which is beautiful, funny and thrilling at the same time, filled with so many inventive sight gags. When Keaton’s top hat doesn’t fit on his head in the locomotive carriage, he puts on his iconic pork pie hat; that’s more like it! It’s a bumpy unstable ride to say the least, and even has a dog chasing it throughout for that extra bit of amusement

The set up of Our Hospitality is the type of melodrama which was rife during the silent period (and what Keaton himself parodied in his short The Frozen North). One family has a feud with another which lasts from one generation to the next, and nobody remembers what caused the feud to begin with (“Men of one family grew up killing men of another for no other reason expect their fathers had done so”). Ah simple but effective naivety; why can’t we all just get along?

Keaton’s birthplace is not stated during the film, but it’s clearly located in Appalachia, prior to his character being sent to New York for a better upbringing; Keaton the sophisticated New Yorker vs. hillbilly red necks. Yep, we have a movie here ripe with hillbilly stereotypes. On top of tapping into the Appalachian cultural stereotype of feuding families, there are plenty of guns stored in the Canfield house, but when they’re not allowed to use them due to their comical dedication to be hospitable, they just ask the townspeople to borrow a gun. Likewise in another scene, Keaton sees a husband abusing his wife, steps in and throws the husband aside, yet the wife starts attacking Keaton himself. Keaton then runs away, followed by the husband ordering the wife back into the house. Ah, the glorious lack of political correctness.

Three Ages (1923)

History of the World, Part I

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Three Ages is one of the earliest spoof movies, a feature-length parody of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, cutting between three different historical periods in which in men set about obtaining the love of a woman. The Stone Age portions of the film are a fantasy stone age in which people wear fur, carry clubs and man and dinosaur live side by side and there is even a sequence with a stop-motion dinosaur; I wish I could see more of it. Three Ages long precedes The Flintstones with its use of anachronisms; with clever stone age equivalents of modern days things such as the turtle operated ‘wee-gee board’. Likewise just like in a D.W. Griffith film, the Rome featured in Three Ages actually looks vast and expansive while featuring the most amusing chariot race ever complete with sleds and huskies. It’s moments like these which give Three Ages a sense of cuteness and innocence to it.

The role of a caveman is perfect for Wallace Beery, Keaton’s more manly opponent. Many of Keaton’s films show him with a feminine side and this is particularly true with the stone age portions of Three Ages, not just with his rivalry with Wallace Beery but also in a scene in the stone age in which he is overpowered by a woman bigger and stronger than him whom the audience is led to believe is a man to begin with. Yet the prevalence of gender-bending is taken a step further in one of the modern age portions of the film in which the wife of a household whom is dressed like a man has the final say on who marries her daughter. Do girls like bad boys or nice sensitive guys? Buster Keaton films would have you believe the latter. Margaret Leahy is Keaton’s leading lady in Three Ages, an actress came to Hollywood because of a beauty competition and supposedly couldn’t act. The filmmakers appear to work their way around this as her performance largely consists of just mildly reacting to things.

Unlike Keaton’s other silent films, Three Ages has a larger emphasis on non-slapstick gags and not as much stunt work. The film still has one major def defying stunt sequence in which he failed to make a leap between two buildings; however, this happy accident resulted in a pure classic Keaton stunt sequence as he effortlessly descends several stories through a building. Likewise, the finale of stopping a wedding at the last minute is such a cliché but Keaton manages to put an unexpected spin on it. It would be easy for a film like Three Ages to be cynical and pessimistic but like Keaton’s other work it’s optimistic in the end.  The three Keatons go through much hardship and pain but through much perseverance, they get the girl in the end.