A+ List: The Lady Eve

The art of screwball comedy is pretty much lost today, and has been for at least 60 years. Sure, we still have romantic comedies, and some of them are even pretty good. But the screwball was different. The romantic leads were not only attractive and sexy; they were glamorous–dressed, made up and photographed to look like the absolute zenith of young, gorgeous aristocrats.

And yet these gorgeous aristocrats acted like low comedians. They’d ruin their clothes, do double takes, and suffer the indignity of pratfalls.

Screwballs also dealt with class issues–in a light way. One of the two romantic leads usually came from a more comfortable and respectable class of people than the other.

By bringing together a shy, scientifically-minded aristocrat and a beautiful con artist, Preston Sturges created the perfect screwball. The Lady Eve is cynical, sexy, occasionally touching, and very, very funny. It makes my A+ list of near-perfect films that I fell in love with years (preferably decades) ago and still love today.

(For what it’s worth, Bringing Up Baby is my second favorite screwball. The Coen Brother’s overlooked Intolerable Cruelty is the closest thing to screwball we’ve had in decades. But back to The Lady Eve.)

Barbara Stanwyck plays the title character, or, to be more accurate, she plays Jean, who plays the title character. Jean is half of a father-daughter team of card sharks preying on ocean liner passengers.

She and her father (Charles Coburn) find their next victim in Charles Pike, of the Connecticut Pikes (Henry Fonda in a rare and wonderful comic performance). His family made a fortune ages ago in the brewery business (“Pike’s Pale; the ale that won for Yale”). But he’s not interested in beer. He wants to study snakes. In fact, he’s returning home from an Amazonian expedition. Talk about the perfect mark for a beautiful crook.

In an early scene in the ship’s dining room, every unmarried woman onboard tries to catch Charles’ eye, but he cares only for the book he’s reading (called Are Snakes Necessary). Jean uses her pocket mirror to check out her competition. It’s a hilarious sequence, supported by her running commentary and topped with her brilliant and effective way of getting Charles’ attention.

About half of the film is set on the ship, as Jean and her father set their trap. Of course she’s going to fall in love with the sucker– anyone who’s ever seen a movie knows that. But by the time they reach land, the love has turned to hate.

In the second half of the film, Jean pretends to be an English noblewoman, the Lady Eve, to seek her revenge. And it’s all so easy. American aristocrats, at least in this movie, worship British gentry as the real thing.

Sturges clearly sympathizes with the con artists, not the aristocrats. You can’t watch the movie without hoping that Jean and her father will thoroughly humiliate Charles.

The Lady Eve is filled with the brilliant dialog, loopy logic, and strange characters that populate almost every movie written and directed by Preston Sturges. A romantic marriage proposal is marred by a horse who insists on nuzzling the prospective groom. Charles’ father reacts like a three-year-old when the servants are too busy to bring his breakfast. And there’s the whole thing about snakes; they’re not really part of the plot, but the eccentricity makes Charles more interesting, more socially awkward, and more loveable than your run-of-the-mill rich and handsome young man.

Sturges used comic supporting players brilliantly, especially William Demarest, who shines in almost every Sturges movie. In this one, he’s Charles’ working-class bodyguard “and very bad valet.” With his blue-collar demeanor, he clearly doesn’t belong with all these rich people–or even with the other servants. But he watches Charles like a hawk, suspecting foul play even when Charles is winning (rightly, of course).

The movie is filled with Sturges’ brilliant comic dialog. I won’t quote any. It’s best heard in context.

Visually speaking, there’s nothing exceptional about The Lady Eve. It looks like any other Paramount comedy of the early 1940s, clearly shot on sound stages. But what’s done and said on those stages makes it a masterpiece.

Sundance Film Festival 2015 Award-Winning Shorts

A- Selection of shorts

A dystopian future, war-torn screen tests, scuba diving under ice, and a sexually-frustrated single mom all turn up in this selection of six short subjects that won awards at the 2015 Sundance film festival. I loved five out of the six.

World of Tomorrow, Short Film Jury Award

a little girl, scarcely more than a toddler, receives a visit from a full-grown, multi-generational clone of herself living centuries in the future. In the clone’s monologue, we learn of a world of isolation, sadness, and empty lives. Starting out as a satire of technology, World of Tomorrow turns into a comment on the human condition. The animation is extremely simplistic, as befits such a morality tale.

SMILF, Short Film Jury Prize: US Fiction

Few things are as funny as extremely awkward sex–as long as it’s only a movie. A single mother who hasn’t had any since her son was born (I’d guess two years) invites an old boyfriend over for a quick bonk while the toddler naps. What could go wrong? Pretty much everything. Beyond the laughs, it offers a real taste of one of the major frustrations of young parenthood.

Oh Lucy, Short Film Jury Prize: International Fiction

Touching, funny, sad, and totally unpredictable, this Japanese comic drama starts out almost as an anti-smoking commercial. An unhappy, chain-smoking middle-aged women coughs a lot. Then her niece talks her into taking English lessons. It’s best if you don’t know what happens after that, but it swings from hilarious absurdity to quiet sadness.

The Face of Ukraine: Casting Oksana Baiul, Short Film Jury Prize: Non-Fiction

Basically a collection of screen tests, where several young girls–all in identical outfits and makeup–audition for the part of a famous Ukrainian ice skater. For much of the film’s seven minutes, it’s little more than kids being cute. But every so often, the tragedy of today’s Ukraine breaks through, and you see the horrors of war on the young faces.

Storm Hits Jacket, Short Film Jury Prize: Animation

The weakest in the batch. This badly animated fable from France seems to be about something, but I’m not sure what. Two inept guys with some sort of invention get caught in a storm. A woman comes into the picture. There’s a bad guy, and some sexual innuendo. I think it was supposed to be funny.

Object, Short Film Special Jury Prize for Poetic Vision

In this wordless Polish short, a group of men walk to a spot on a frozen lake, and cut a hole in the ice. Then one man in scuba gear goes through the hole to look for something while his friends make sure he’s safe. We never find out who these men are or what “Object” they’re looking for. But it doesn’t really matter. Beautiful images, strong atmosphere, and a sense of dread (this work looks real dangerous) are enough to make this a powerful short.

A+ List: The Kid Brother (also Jaws)

When people talk about the masterpieces of silent comedy, they usually name The Gold Rush, The General, and City Lights. If they bring up Harold Lloyd at all, they’ll praise Safety Last
or The Freshman.

To my mind, Lloyd’s The Kid Brother belongs with the best. It earns that right by its irresistible story, its beautiful cinematography, its rousing finish, and its nostalgic and yet not entirely positive view of rural America. But most of all, it earns that level of respect by containing several of the funniest extended comedy sequences ever committed to film.

For these reasons, I put this relatively obscure 1927 comedy on my A+ list. This list contains the near-perfect films that I fell in love with years (preferably decades) ago and still love today.

But first, let me draw your attention to another movie on the list: Jaws. I’m not writing about that one now because I’ve written about it before. You can read my Blu-ray review and my Book vs. Movie article.

Okay, back to The Kid Brother.

Harold (Lloyd’s characters were always named Harold; only the last names changed) is the youngest son of Sheriff Hickory–the most powerful and respected man in Hickoryville. Harold’s father and two older brothers are big, strong, manly men. Harold, who does the housework while the men in the family clear the forest and carry logs, idolizes them. They don’t think much of him.

The arrival of a medicine show, made up of two evil men and one innocent young woman (Jobyna Ralston) jumpstarts the plot. Harold, barely recognized as a grownup by his family, will have to vanquish the villains, win the lady fair, and save his father from a lynching.

And of course he can do it. What no one seems to notice is that Harold Hickory is by far the smartest person in Hickoryville. He’s built contraptions to help him with his chores. He regularly outwits the large bully next door. When his much stronger brothers set out to beat him up, he tricks them into attacking their even stronger father. Even Harold doesn’t know how smart he is.

A note on authorship: Harold Lloyd produced and starred in his films. He never took director credit. (The Kid Brother was officially directed by Ted Wilde and J.A. Howe.) I consider Lloyd the auteur of his films.

No one could build an extended comedy scene like Lloyd and his team of collaborators. The Kid Brother has at least four great extended comedy scenes, each astonishing in its creativity, meticulous construction, and laugh delivery. In my favorite, Harold takes the girl home, where his brothers are waiting to beat him up. Needless to say, there are no beatings. I won’t go into details.

We don’t only laugh at Harold; we cheer for him. He’s an underdog whose considerable gifts are overlooked by everyone (except the girl, of course). This is Lloyd at his most sympathetic. In Safety Last, he tricked people so he could lie to his girlfriend. In The Freshman, he wants to be the most popular kid on the campus. But in The Kid Brother, he’s avoiding a whipping and, in the last act, fighting with a known murderer.

Lloyd knew when to turn down the laughs and let the story take hold. That final fight is truly suspenseful, and scary. But Lloyd added brilliant comic pieces to it as a sort of leavening.

He does much the same thing with romantic scenes. He comforts the girl, who has just lost everything she owns. She’s resting her head on his shoulder. He feels drops of water on his hand, and he looks up. No rain. He realizes she’s crying. He hold her tighter. The drops on his hand turn into a torrent. Now he’s really worried about her. And yes, it’s raining.

For all its feuds and backwardness, Hickoryville looks like a beautiful place to live. The Kid Brother is easily Lloyd’s most visually pleasing film, with sunlight streaming through the trees and glistening on the water. Walter Lundin’s photography here rivals that of Bert Haines and Dev Jennings in Keaton’s The General.

A confession: I have some personal history that may affect my love of The Kid Brother. It was the first silent feature I ever saw, and the first silent I saw properly–in a theater with live music. In the last years of his life, Lloyd screened his films at schools in the Los Angeles area. In my first year at Hollywood High School (1969-70), he came with The Kid Brother. The school auditorium had a pipe organ, and Gaylord Carter played the accompaniment. That was the beginning of my love of silent film.

Also, like Harold Hickory, I’m the youngest of three sons. I know something about avoiding confrontation with bigger and stronger siblings.

But I don’t think these issues effect my opinion all that much. I’ve seen The Kid Brother theatrically at least four times. I know the reactions it gets from an audience. Believe me; it’s a masterpiece.

Baseball, NYC, & Harold Lloyd: Speedy, the Blu-ray Review

Harold Lloyd’s last silent comedy, Speedy, delivers the laughs and thrills that we expect from the comic genius. As an additional bonus, it provides substantial views of New York City in the roaring 20s–much of it shot on location. The pace is as fast as you’d expect from a movie called Speedy.

But Lloyd’s only film of 1928 doesn’t quite come up to his best work. Lloyd’s screen persona worked best in a strong story with room for his character to mature and win the audience’s heart. You’ll find that in his best films, such as The Kid Brother and The Freshman. Speedy just provides laughs–and when you come right down to it, that’s enough.

Harold Lloyd neither wrote nor directed his films. But he starred in them, produced them, and had final control. I consider him to be their auteur.

Speedy is basically a collection of gags and extended comic sequences, with little to connect them except that they’re happening to the same person. The movie sets up a real plot early on, then forgets its, and finally brings it back for the exciting finale.

Lloyd’s character is almost the opposite of his Safely Last go-getter. He’s a slacker, too crazy about baseball to hold a job for long. His mind is on the Yankees, not his work. He also spends time with his girlfriend (Ann Christy) and her lovable old grandpa (Bert Woodruff). Grandpa owns the last horse-drawn trolley car line in New York. The main conflict, such as it is, involves the big, evil corporation that wants his track but isn’t willing to pay him what it’s worth.

A long sequence at Coney Island has nothing to do with the story, but it provides a view of what is now a lost world. It also delivers a great many jokes. Not all of them work (I got tired of the lobster quickly), but others land beautifully. A sequence where Harold tries desperately to keep his new suit clean generates a lot of laughs–a combination of flawless construction and believable exaggeration of a common experience.

Another great sequence has Harold (or Speedy; his nickname) failing miserably at driving a cab. One would-be passenger after another proves a loss from either bad luck or Harold’s own ineptitude. His idol, Babe Ruth (in a cameo as himself), takes a ride in the cab, only to be terrified by Harold’s horrible driving.

The plot returns in the final half hour, and it’s here that Speedy is at its best. To save the trolley route, Harold leads a bunch of old tradesmen against a much younger gang of thugs. Needless to say, the thugs don’t have a chance. And then Lloyd stages one of his best chases as he brings the trolley in on time.

Like all comedies, Speedy works best with a crowd. If you buy this Blu-ray, invite some friends over to see it.

Now if Criterion would only release Kid Brother on Blu-ray.

First Impression

Speedy comes in a standard Criterion plastic box, with a cover that suggests the Coney Island sequence. In addition to the disc, you’ll find a foldout dominated by an article, “The Comic Figure of the Average Man,” by Phillip Lopate. I’ll just say that Lopate and I, while both loving Lloyd, have very different views about what makes his best work.

The foldout also contains movie credits and Criterion’s usual “About the Transfer.”

The home screen, with the standard Criterion menu, comes up the first time you put in the disc . The options are Movie, Timeline, Chapters, Commentary, and Supplements. There are no audio or subtitle options. The next time you insert the disc, you’ll get an option to go back to where you left off.

How It Looks

The 1080p transfer, scanned at 4K from a fine-grain master positive, looks good but seldom excellent. Nothing to complain about, but nothing like the sharp and near-perfect Criterion transfer of The Freshman.

How It Sounds

Carl Davis composed and conducted this jazzy and fun score in 1992. Some Civil War music, also used in his score for The General, pops up in the battle scene.

Criterion presents this music in uncompressed, 24-bit, two-track stereo PCM. It sounds great.

And the Extras

  • New commentary (recorded this year) by Bruce Goldstein, director of repertory programming at New York’s Film Forum, and Scott McGee, director of program production at Turner Classic Movies. They recorded it together, and their banter together makes it especially enjoyable.
  • In the Footsteps of “Speedy”: 1080p, 31 minutes. Goldstein visits and discusses the locations. A lot of fun, seeing parts of New York then and now, and explaining the differences between NYC and LA locations.
  • Babe Ruth: 1080p, 40 minutes. I only got a few minutes into this selection of newsreel footage of the baseball star, compiled and narrated by David Filipi of the Wexner Center’s film/video department. It would probably interest people who care about baseball.
  • Narrated Stills: Deleted Scenes: 1080p, 4 minutes. Narrated by Goldstein. Short and sweet; and tantalizing. I’d like to see more of those lost scenes.
  • Home Movies:1080i; 18 minutes. Lloyd’s home movies, from “around the time that Speedy was made.” They’re concentrated on his children, and narrated by his granddaughter, Suzanne Lloyd. Interesting and enjoyable. It gives the impression he was a great father.
  • Bumping into Broadway: 26 minutres, 1080i. This 1919 short is the first two-reeler with the glasses character. Not much of a story, but some good sight gags, and it closes with a wonderful indoor chase that reminded me of Chaplin’s The Adventurer. Music by Robert Israel.

Raymond Griffith at Niles

Last Saturday night, I visited the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum for a screening of the 1925 Raymond Griffith comedy, Hands Up! I had seen it once before–probably in 1977 or ’78 at the Avenue Theater (of blessed memory). Then, and now, I totally enjoyed it.

Sorry it took me so long to get to write about this. I’ve been busy.

Raymond Griffith (not related to D.W. Griffith) is largely forgotten these days, and his work (or at least what I’ve seen of it) doesn’t come up to the best of Keaton, Chaplin, or Lloyd. But he was funny. He almost always appeared in a top hat and cape, as if he was going to the opera. His character was cheerful, unflappable, and exceptionally polite. I wrote more about Griffith in a recent Eat Drink Films article, Revisiting Walter Kerr’s THE SILENT CLOWNS.

Hands Up! is a civil war comedy, with the hero on the side of the Confederacy, so comparisons to The General
are almost mandatory. The General is a masterpiece–a near perfect alloy of epic adventure and slapstick comedy. Despite the laughs, it feels plausible and realistic. But Hands Up! is simply farce. It will do anything for a laugh, even at the expense of the atmosphere or story.

Griffith plays a Confederate spy who travels west to sabotage a Yankee goldmine. Along the way he outwits a firing squad, teaches native Americans to dance the Charleston (a major anachronism), and romances a pair of young and beautiful sisters.

The film wasn’t quite as good as I remembered. Over the years, my memory had improved some of the jokes, making them better timed. Some sequences involving an African American were shockingly racist, even for a film of this vintage.

But the good parts were strong enough for me to give it an B+.

The 16mm print was made up from several sources to get the entire picture looking as good as possible. And for the most part, it looked good if not great.

The feature was preceded by two shorts: D.W. Griffith’s The Last Drop of Water and William S. Hart’s The Taking of Luke McVane. Neither was better than moderately entertaining, in large part I suspect from the washed-out prints, especially of the Griffith.

There was a theme running through all three movies: the desert. The organization Desert Survivors was involved with this screening.

Bruce Loeb accompanied all of the films on piano.

Before the movies began, I took the liberty of taking some photos of the museum. Enjoy:

The theater

Old cameras, with an old projector on the right

Another view of the cameras and that black projector

The two 16mm projectors in the projection booth. The blue box in the rear is one of the two 35mm projectors

Four nights at the movies: The Crowd, Preston Sturges, a Teenage Girl, & 2 Noirs

I managed to see four feature films theatrically in the last four nights–plus another on television.

Sunday: The Crowd

My wife and I, along with another couple, went to the Castro to see one of the greatest silent films ever made, and arguably the most difficult American masterpiece to see, King Vidor’s The Crowd. I’ve already written about the movie, so I’ll stick to the presentation.

This was something of a special event–the last silent film to be accompanied by the Mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ that has graced both silent films and before-the-movie concerts at the Castro for over 30 years. The Castro never owned the organ, and the owners are finding it more and more difficult to maintain. The Silent Film Festival hasn’t used it in years because of technical problems. The theater is raising money to replace it with what is being claimed as “the largest hybrid (pipe/digital) organ in the world.”

Unfortunately, this last hurrah for the old organ was disappointing–despite the great cinema up on the screen. Bruce Loeb’s improvised score felt off, often ignoring the actions and emotions on screen. Even obvious music cues, such as a close-up of a phonograph about to be put on the turntable, didn’t affect what Loeb was playing.

Monday: Christmas in July

My wife and I stayed home Monday night, and we watched the one movie I always wanted to screen on a double bill with The Crowd: Preston Sturges’ Christmas in July.

What does a talk-heavy comedy have to do with a silent drama? A lot. They’re both set in New York. Both protagonists have lower-level white-collar jobs adding numbers in a large office filled with similar employees. And each dreams of breakthrough success via advertising slogan contests.

Of course the big difference is that Christmas in July is funny. The hapless hero of a loser (Dick Powell) thinks he’s won a slogan contest with a “funny” catchphrase that other people just find bewildering. So he goes on a generous spending spree that’s headed to disaster. The ending is utterly and completely absurd–and hilarious. I give it a B+.

Just remember: If you can’t sleep at night, it isn’t the coffee. It’s the bunk.

Tuesday: Diary of a Teenage Girl

The next night, we went to the Shattuck to catch Diary of a Teenage Girl–the only new film we’ve seen this week. In fact, it’s the only film we saw this week that was made before after 1950.

We both loved it.

Minnie (Bel Powley in an amazing breakthrough performance) isn’t just any teenage girl. She’s the daughter of a irresponsible hippie mother in 1977 San Francisco–and when we first meet her, she’s just lost her virginity to her mother’s boyfriend. She’s also an inspiring cartoonist (the film is based on a graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, and the images often burst into underground-comic-style animation). The movie follows her early sexual experimentations, mostly with the morally weak, age-inappropriate man who should be loyal to her mother. The film captures San Francisco in the late 70s flawlessly (I was there). But even better, it captures the rocky emotions of a young woman bursting with hormones and not sure what to do with them.

I give it an A.

At least when we saw it, the Shattuck was running Diary of a Teenage Girl in one of their tiny, hole-in-the-wall auditoriums. I hate these. The tiny screens are bad enough, but the very wide aisle down the middle of the theater makes it worse. There’s nowhere you can sit that isn’t very far off to the side.

Wednesday: I Wake Up Dreaming

The I Wake Up Dreaming film noir series moves to Berkeley this month. Every Wednesday in September, The California Theater will screen two classic or obscure noirs–mostly obscure.

That’s the good news. The bad: The $15 ticket price is high, and there are no discount prices. The other bad news: The films are being screened digitally, and I don’t think any of them will be off DCP. Some of the films will be projected off of Blu-ray, which is reasonably acceptable. Most, I suspect–including the two I saw Wednesday night–will be off of DVDs.

If you’re curious, there’s an easy way to tell if a film will be screened off a Blu-ray. Google the title, the year or star, and the word blu-ray. You’ll soon find out if a Blu-ray is available. If it is, chances are very high that California will screen it in the better format.

I attended the first double bill last night (my wife wasn’t able to join me that night). It was in the California’s large and lovely downstairs auditorium. Okay. Now onto the movies:

Phantom Lady: Enjoyable and fun, this 1944 murder mystery is awful light for a noir. The good guys are just too good. And thus, dull. But the bad guys are a lot of fun–especially Franchot Tone as a totally psychotic killer (don’t worry; I’m not giving anything away) and Elisha Cook Jr. as a horny drummer. But then, any noir with Elisha Cook Jr. is better than the same movie without him. By the way, the plot involves a man convicted of murdering his wife, and the loving secretary (Ella Raines) out to prove him innocent. Enjoyable but unexceptional. I give it a B-.

Criss Cross: This one is considered a minor classic. I wouldn’t go that far, but I liked it enough to give it a B+. Burt Lancaster plays an armored car driver who finds himself in a love triangle with his ex-wife and a gangster. And not just a love triangle. They also join forces to pull off the heist of the century. But as the name suggests, everyone is planning to double cross everyone else. Director Robert Siodmak keeps the story moving fast and tight. Look fast, and you’ll catch a not-yet-famous Tony Curtis in a non-speaking role that’s little more than an extra.

[[Thanks to my wife, Madeline, for catching that before/after error.]]

The A+ List: The General (and The Gold Rush)

The Gold Rush and The General are, by widely considered the two great masterpieces of silent comedy. Walter Kerr called them epic comedies. Both films easily make my A+ list [12/14/2015: URL changed].

For a film to earn that grade, it must be the perfect embodiment of its genre or stand beyond genre. It must be at least 20 years old (so I know that it’s stood the test of time), and I personally must of have known and loved the film for decades.

I don’t need to tell you about Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush again. I’ve already written a Blu-ray review and a piece about seeing it with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.

So let’s get to…

The General

I feel a little uncomfortable praising a Civil War comedy that asks us to root for the Confederates. After all, the South’s rebellion was an act of treason committed in defense of slavery. After all, I’ve been very critical of Gone with the Wind and The Birth of a Nation.

And yet, here I am, discussing the genius of a movie where the lovable hero proudly waves the Stars and Bars–clearly a cue for audience applause–in the climactic battle.

On the other hand, as he waves, he steps on a “rock” that turns out to be the back of a cowardly Confederate officer. Buster Keaton, the film’s auteur as well as its star, wasn’t much interested in politics. But he sure enjoyed making fun of the military.

(Several of Keaton’s films, including The Seven Chances, contain racist humor that’s shocking by today’s standards–although completely acceptable in the 1920s. Luckily, he used no such humor in either The General or his other film set in the antebellum South, Our Hospitality.)

Keaton based The General on a true story that held mythical power in the South in the 1920s. In the film’s very fictionalized version, Northern spies hijack a Southern train, and the engineer (Keaton) gives chase to recover his beloved engine. (He doesn’t know that his former girlfriend, who rejected him for not being a soldier, has been kidnapped, as well.) Two locomotive chases dominate the movie. In the first, Keaton chases the spies. In the second, after Buster has retrieved his train and his girl, they’re chased by what feels like the entire Union army.

Keaton loved trains, and he used them frequently as giant comic props. But in The General he created the ultimate train comedy, and arguably the ultimate train movie. Every aspect of running a 19th-century steam locomotive–from chopping wood to tanking up on water to switching tracks becomes cause for comedy.

As does the hardware of war. In the first chase, Buster tries to attack the villains with a snub-nosed canon. As is so often the case with Keaton’s work, the inanimate object appears to be alive–and malevolent.

In the second chase, he adds another wrinkle–the girlfriend. She doesn’t know trains, and therefore makes comic mistakes far greater than Keaton’s. When he tells her to add wood to the fire, she throws in one small stick. Annoyed, he hands her a twig. Not understanding his sarcasm, she dutifully throws that one in as well. His reaction is priceless.

But she also shows some common sense. She improvises a trap for the oncoming Union trains that Keaton clearly thinks worthless. When the trap springs on the hapless bluecoats, it gets one of the film’s biggest laughs.

The General just might be the most beautiful and spectacular comedy ever filmed. Shot mostly in rural Oregon, it’s filled with breathtaking scenery. And sometimes that scenery is filled with massive armies moving across the landscape or–in the climax–in battle.

But Keaton knew how to use spectacle in the service of comedy. One particular shot, which just may be the single most expensive shot of the silent era, shows a train attempt to cross a burning bridge and fall to its doom, while soldiers below ford the river. It was done without models, and the visuals take your breath away. But it’s also a setup for a gag whose punchline is a medium shot of a one man on horseback.

If The General has a moral–and I don’t really think it does–it’s that the professional technician is superior to the professional soldier. Buster makes a lot of mistakes, but the officers on both sides pretty much make nothing but mistakes. And one very funny moment, involving a Northern train engineer, shows us that the technical professionals are the smart ones everywhere.

I’m not sure, but I may have seen The General more times than any other single feature film. I first saw it in a college lecture hall, off a 16mm print, with no sound except the laughing students. I’ve heard it with live accompaniment by Bob Vaughn (at least three times, probably more), Christoph Bull (my single favorite General experience), The Alloy Orchestra (twice), and others I don’t remember. I’ve owned it on Laserdisc, DVD, and now on Blu-ray.

I’ve yet to tire of it.


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