A+ List: Ikiru; also a Blu-ray review

A bureaucrat, emotionally dead and cut-off from both his job and his family, discovers that he has only months to live. He has scarce time to make his empty life meaningful. He will find that meaning in Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 masterpiece, Ikiru.

The name translates into English as To Live.

When I started this project of revisiting my all-time favorite films–my A+ list of personal classics–I thought I would quickly skip over Ikiru on the grounds that I discussed it previously in a Kurosawa Diary entry. But then Criterion announced the Blu-ray, just as Ikiru came up on the alphabetical list. Sometimes, the timing works.

For a film to make my A+ list, it must be the perfect embodiment of its genre or, better yet, 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 years–preferably decades.

Consider American films about dying of cancer. In The Bucket List, the main characters go skydiving, fly over the North Pole, and eat in a gourmet French restaurant. In Breaking Bad, the hero makes and deals drugs to pay for treatment and help his family. But in Kurasawa’s moral universe, the dying protagonist finds redemption by fighting city hall and getting a park built in a slum.

What’s more, Kurosawa found a unique and original way to structure the story that keeps it from getting preachy or maudlin.

Warning: What you’re about to read has mild spoilers. I don’t think they will ruin your first screening of Ikiru. But if you’re worried, skip down to the First Impression section below.

In what was probably the best role of his career, Takashi Shimura plays Watanabe, the city hall bureaucrat who almost accidentally discovers he has an advanced case of stomach cancer. He stops going to work. A widower, he discovers he can’t make any significant contact with his son and daughter-in-law, even though they live with him.

He tries wine, women, and song; they don’t help. He befriends a former co-worker–a young woman bursting with life. Their friendship is platonic, but his family assumes otherwise. He’s happy when he’s around her, but eventually she pushes him away.

Before his diagnosis, he led a department where everyone pretended to be busy but never did anything meaningful. Now he takes on a crusade: He will get the city to drain an germ-infested sump and replace it with a park.

And just when the story is about to become sentimental, Kurosawa jumps ahead five months and the narrator tells us that Watanabe is dead. (Ikiru uses narration sparingly, but brilliantly. This is the only drama I’ve ever seen where a voice-of-God narrator sounds sarcastic.) In the extended wake scene that follows, the hero’s family and co-workers piece together at least part of what he never told them.

After Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura was the most important actor in Kurosawa’s career. Primarily a character actor, Shimura rarely got starring roles. But he carries this picture beautifully, and you feel his presence even in the wake sequence, where you see him only in flashbacks.

For a film about death, Ikiru can be surprisingly lively. A jazz nightclub scene gives you a taste of Kurosawa’s love for American popular music. Jokes abound, many around the “rakish” hat he acquires in his night of partying.

Aside from the jazz, music plays some important roles here. Twice in the film, Shimura sings a touchingly sad song (Shimura acted in musicals before his Kurosawa years). And the story’s major turning point happens in a restaurant where young people in the background sing “Happy Birthday.”

Class differences play an important part in Ikiru. Look closely, and you’ll see a society where your birth defines your life in often cruel ways.

Few films are as perfect as Ikiru.

First Impression

The Ikiru Blu-ray comes in a standard Criterion case. The cover shows the famous still of Shimura sitting on a swing on a snowy night. Inside, along with the disc, is a printed foldout with two articles: Donald Richie’s “To Live” and Pico Iver’s “Ikiru Many Autumns Later.” The foldout also contains credits for the film and disc, and Criterion’s traditional “About the Transfer” page.

If you own Richie’s classic book, The Films of Akira Kurosawa, you already own the first article on the foldout.

When you inset the disc, the home screen shows a close-up of a very scared Takashi Shimura. There’s no sound. The menu follows Criterion design, with the options on the right.

The only language options are English subtitles–On (default) or Off.

As with all Criterion Blu-rays, when you insert the disc a second time, you’ll get an option to go back to where you left off. Selecting No will bring you to the home screen.

How It Looks

The 4K scan was taken from a fine-grain master positive–the original camera negative is either lost or destroyed. Criterion presents this scan in 1080p AVC.

For the most part, it looks excellent. Ikiru is not a pretty movie, but the details–stacks of papers, peeling wallpaper–play an important role in creating the atmosphere of post-war Tokyo and of useless bureaucracy.

Unfortunately, some of the source material was beyond repair (or beyond Criterion’s budget). Occasionally the image was marred by what appeared to be uneven exposure, with part of the screen bleached out..

How It Sounds

The uncompressed LPCM 1.0 24-bit, 24-bit mono soundtrack did its job. In some of the music scenes, you could hear the early 1950s technology struggling to capture the notes.

But I suspect this is how it sounded when Kurosawa signed off on the mix. I have no complaints.

And the Extras

The suppliments are identical to those on the 2003 two-disc DVD release.

  • Commentary by Stephen Prince, author of The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa.
    In a truly excellent commentary, Prince discusses Kurosawa’s techniques, his collaborators, and bits about post-war Japan that helps make this very universal story specifically Japanese.
  • A Message from Akira Kurosawa: For Beautiful Movies: 81 minutes, 1080i, but looks like SD. Produced by Kurosawa’s company only two years after his death, this overly-referential, feature-length documentary covers his movie-making techniques from writing to scoring. Much of it is shallow and dull. But occasionally, especially when Kurosawa is on screen talking, it’s interesting and informative.
  • Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create: 42 minutes, 1080i, but looks like SD. In 2002, Japanese television did a documentary series on Kurosawa’s films. This is the Ikira episode. It’s mostly antidotes from people who worked on the film, and for the most part it’s fascinating. Very much worth watching.
  • Trailer

A+ List: The Grapes of Wrath

By all logic, the film version of The Grapes of Wrath shouldn’t have been made–let alone become a masterpiece. It’s a great film based on a great novel–how often does that happen? It was directed by the revered auteurist director John Ford, but it’s not really an auteurist film. It’s a Hollywood movie from the height of the studio era, yet it’s unabashedly political, utterly lacking in glamour, and holds no punches (well, not many). It’s a story very much of its time, yet its themes echo into the 21st century.

I first saw The Grapes of Wrath, made in 1940, in a 16mm print in 1972. I’ve seen it many times since (only twice in 35mm, but one of those was a nitrate print) and have always been moved by it. It easily makes my A+ list of films that I loved decades ago and still love–my all-time favorites.

Book vs. film

I don’t agree with the cliché that the book is always better than the movie, but great books seldom make great films. A great novel is a great novel in part because prose suits the story. It’s bound to lose something when told in images. Mediocre books often make great films (see Jaws and Red River), but great books almost always make disappointing films.

But The Grapes of Wrath is the proverbial exception that proves the rule. John Steinbeck’s novel became more than just the best-selling book of 1939. It won a Pulitzer. It’s considered one of the Great American Novels.

The novel, and the film, trace the story of the large and extended Joad family, Oklahoma farmers thrown off of their land by the twin disasters of economic depression and dust storms. They pile everything that they own into a ramshackle truck and head west to the promised land of California. After a long and difficult trip, they find exploitation, poverty, and violence in the Golden State.

Following the novel closely wasn’t an option in 1940. It might be an option today, but only on cable television, where there’s little censorship and a story can run as long as needed. (I would love to see an HBO adaptation.)

In order to fit The Grapes of Wrath into two hours that would pass the censors of the day, screenwriter Nunnally Johnson significantly changed the story–a dangerous thing to do with a recent best-seller. The two biggest changes: Johnson provided a semi-happy ending by moving the book’s most optimistic section, where the Joads temporally stay in a well-run government camp, to the last act. And he completely removed the last and most depressing section of the book.

But despite these changes, the film has a power all its own–the power of images, and especially of faces. The look on a face can show a complexity of emotion that feels labored when described in words. And when a great director like John Ford is coaching those actors, the faces can say plenty.

John Ford–part of the team

We tend to think of a film directed by John Ford as a John Ford film, in a way that we don’t think of a film directed by, say, Michael Curtiz. And for Stagecoach, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and many other masterpieces, that description fits. But with The Grapes of Wrath, studio head Darryl F. Zanuck and producer/screenwriter Nunnally Johnson deserve equal credit with Ford.

Zanuck, a former screenwriter, was probably the most talented of the studio-era moguls–and with The Grapes of Wrath, he proved himself the most courageous. Yes, the book was a huge commercial hit, but it was being banned, burned, and denounced as Communist propaganda as the film was being made.

Johnson was one of the best screenwriters working in Hollywood, and had reached the point where he was producing the films that he wrote. Ford, who liked to pretend he didn’t answer to anyone, answered to both Zanuck and Johnson.

Which isn’t to say that Ford didn’t play an important role. In Grapes as in all of his best work, Ford used actors and photography to create an atmosphere that balanced between myth and realism. It would not have been a great film without Ford.

All movies, of course, are collaborations, and you can’t give all the credit for The Grapes of Wrath to Zanuck, Johnson, and Ford. After Citizen Kane, cinematographer Gregg Toland does some of his best work here. The film’s star, Henry Fonda, gives one of his best performances as Tom Joad–a basically decent, semi-literate man with a short fuse.

But even Fonda is out-acted by two of the best supporting roles in American cinema: Jane Darwell as Ma Joad and John Carradine as “Preacher” Casy. Darwell’s Ma is the strong backbone of the family–the matriarch who keeps everything together even when there’s nothing left. Carradine’s Casy is a former man of God who lost that divine spark. He’ll find it again, in the most unlikely place. He’s a decent, sinning, caring, talkative man, trying to understand the world and find another way to save souls.

Hollywood gets it right

As remarkable as it is, The Grapes of Wrath is still very much a Hollywood film of 1940. Most of it was shot on sound stages, the backlot, and southern California locations. Almost every speaking part is played by a familiar face (if not a famous name).

Then as now, Hollywood was allergic to controversy. But The Grapes of Wrath makes no attempt to be even-handed, upbeat, or escapist. This American film is telling American filmgoers that something is very rotten in America. Dustbowl refugees such as the Joads are treated like scum, paid literally starvation wages (if they get paid at all), threatened and attacked by mobs, and denounced as “reds” if they complain. You didn’t see that sort of thing in a Hollywood film of 1940. I doubt you would see it today.

And yet, even some of the villains can be decent. Ford regular Ward Bond has one scene as a cop who runs the Joads out of town. But he’s as kind as he could be under the circumstances.

Yes, the government camp sequence allows the audience to relax and see the Joads find a mild degree of happiness–even if they’re still living in a tent and unsure how they will eat. But even this was controversial at the time. Steinbeck–and the filmmakers–wanted to show that the US government was the only entity that could fix this problem. Come to think of it, that’s a more controversial opinion today than it was in 1940.

The Grapes of Wrath in the 21st century

Steinbeck wrote, and Ford filmed, a story based on the reality around them. The specific conditions that drove the book and film no longer exist. But the story feels fresh today. It’s there in the California farmworkers still fighting for a decent life, in the disappearing family farms, in the growing Bay Area homeless population–which now includes people with full-time jobs. And it’s in the refugees pouring out of Syria in a desperate search for peace and security, and finding only hate and bigotry.

As long as human society detests its poorest members, The Grapes of Wrath will not be out of date.

A+ List: Grand Illusion (and Hoop Dreams)

Most movies are forgotten five years after their release. The masterpieces last decades. And so I continue with my survey of my all-time favorite films–my A+ list.

I’ve written about many of these films extensively in the past, and I don’t feel a need to write about them again. So if you want to know why I consider Hoop Dreams a masterpiece, you can read my Blu-ray review.

With that out of the way, let’s get down to the major subject of the day:

Grand Illusion

Early in Jean Renoir’s 1937 POW tale, a German officer announces that he just shot down a plane. He orders an underling to find and a capture the French crew, and “If they’re officers, invite them to lunch.” Odd for what is essentially an anti-war film, Grand Illusion looks back at World War I as something of a gentleman’s game. In the two prisoner-of-war camps where most of the film is set, basic decency prevails. Soldiers are soldiers, officers are officers, and aristocrats are aristocrats–no matter what side of the barbed wire they’re on.

But then, Grand Illusion is not really about war. It’s about the way that human beings separate themselves into nationalities, classes, and ethnicities. These illusionary differences inevitably lead to bigotry, suffering, and worst of all, war. Renoir doesn’t show us that war is hell–that’s a given. But he shows us the common humanity on both sides of national and class divisions. Perhaps, if we could all remember that humanity, we could prevent the next war.

Grand Illusion has no villains. The German guards may occasionally be stern, but never excessively cruel. At times the guards go out of their way to be kind to their charges.

Two characters represent the aristocracy–the French Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and the German Rauffenstein (Stroheim). At some point between treating his prisoners to lunch and his reappearance much later in the film, Rauffenstein suffered a serious-enough wound to take him out of the front lines. For this military romantic, his new position commanding a POW camp is a fate worse than death. When Boeldieu is transferred to the camp, Rauffenstein befriends him. The fellow Germans under his command aren’t worth his companionship, but an aristocratic enemy is a gift from heaven.

Stroheim turns Rauffenstein into a tragic figure. His identity is completely wrapped up in his status as an aristocrat. But he knows that the days of Europe’s aristocracy are numbered, and that he would soon be an anachronism. By contrast, the French Boeldieu carries his aristocratic status lightly, and doesn’t see himself as anything special.

The top billing, of course, goes to the movie star, Jean Gabin. His Lieutenant Maréchal seems to be of lower-middle class origin. He’s a decent fellow, and a ladies man (hey, he’s Jean Gabin). But he carries the casual bigotries of his upbringing, and will have to overcome them.

Most of those casual bigotries aim at Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio). His family of bankers has more money than any of the aristocrats, but they gain no respect from that. Their money isn’t old. And worse, they’re Jews. Rosenthal receives wonderful care packages from his family, and he takes great pains to share them with the other prisoners. But that doesn’t protect him from their thoughtless insults.

But when Maréchal plans the daring escape that dominates the film’s final section, he chooses Rosenthal as his companion. It’s also in this late section that Maréchal has a romance with a German woman played by Dita Parlo. Love knows no borders, but borders can interfere with love.

Grand Illusion is the earliest talkie I know of that absolutely demands subtitles–no matter what’s your native language. It’s a French film, and most of the dialog is in French. But there’s quite a bit of German, and some English and Russian. Rauffenstein and Boeldieu often speak to each other in English, presumably because they can. Or perhaps because Stroheim, after nearly 30 years in the USA, now spoke German with an American accent.

The message of Grand Illusion didn’t reach anybody, and certainly not the people who really needed it. Two years and two months after the film’s release, France and Germany were at war again–in a conflict far more deadly than World War I. It would be years before anyone could again accept a movie where a German prison guard behaves like a decent human being.

A+ List: Goodfellas (and Groundhog Day)

It’s taken me a month, but I’m finally getting back to my A+
, where I cover my all-time favorite films in roughly alphabetical order.

The last two films I looked at were The Godfather
and The Godfather Part II–epic stories of American organized crime. Next alphabetically: Goodfellas–an epic story of American organized crime.

Sort of makes me feel like I’m repeating the same thing over and over again. And that brings me to Groundhog Day. The 1993 comedy also earns one of my rare A+ grades. But rather than writing about it in detail, I’ll just point you to my 2013 appreciation.

With that out of the way, let’s get to the nitty gritty. And with Goodfellas, that nitty is very gritty.


The Godfather was based on a novel; Goodfellas on a true story–and that makes a world of difference. This isn’t an operatic tragedy of a great man’s fate. Instead, it’s an examination of the workaday life of a run-of-the-mill gangster. It follows the career of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) from his enthusiastic, adolescent leap into crime until–25 years later–he rats on long-time friends in order to save his own neck. (Was that a spoiler? I don’t think so. It’s not that kind of movie.)

Liotta narrates most of the film as Hill, who clearly loved his life as a “wise guy.” He had money, the mob was a second family for him, and everyone treated him with respect. Sometimes he had to beat someone up a bit, or help a friend dispose of a dead body, but that was just part of life..

While the narration romanticizes Henry’s life, Scorsese and his collaborators show us the reality. We’re watching Henry and his friends terrorize small businessmen, corrupt the police and other institutions, and wallow in expensive but tasteless consumerism. They’re vicious, cruel, and live a life devoid of grace, love, and any real security.

The main friends are Jim (Robert De Niro) and Tommy (Joe Pesci). Jim comes off as friendly and generous. He loves to give away cash, popping $20 or $100 bills in people’s pockets. When he highjacks a truck and takes its contents, he gives the driver a very generous tip. But he also examines the driver’s license, and warns him of the consequences of talking. Deep down, he’s a cold-blooded killer.

Tommy, on the other hand, is dangerously off his rocker. Sitting around a table with other wise guys, he tells stories that has them all laughing (although I didn’t find many of them very funny). But he can turn on a dime and murder someone for the slightest insult. Every actor’s performance in this film hits its mark, but Pesci’s is the one you remember.

The film takes a surprisingly glamorous turn when Henry courts his future wife, Karen (Lorraine Bracco). When the romance begins, the film’s viewpoint switches from Henry to Karen; Bracco even takes over the narration. That section includes the film’s most celebrated sequence–a long Steadicam shot the follows Henry and Karen as they enter the Copacabana through a backdoor, and are greeted like royalty as they walk through the kitchens and back rooms before getting a ringside table.

With his suave manner and huge wad of bills, Henry seems irresistible to a middle-class, sheltered Jewish girl looking for excitement. The glamour, of course, doesn’t last. Henry proves to be a horrible husband and father in just about every way possible.

The film brilliantly uses popular music . Eric Clapton’s famous Layla instrumental–originally written as the wail of frustrated lover–works on a very different level here, as one dead body after another turns up while Jim is covering his tracks.

Eventually Henry gets involved with the drug trade, and becomes a coke addict himself. That doesn’t help his paranoia; and he has very real reasons to be paranoid. The cops are after him, and his old friends (the ones left alive) want him dead.

In the end, he has two choices. He can start a 30-year prison stretch that would almost certainly end with his murder. Or he could enter the witness protection program. The choice is obvious.

Goodfellas is dazzling filmmaking and incredible story-telling. And the story it tells shows a seductive but inevitably horrible way to live.

A+ List: The Godfather Part II

Both Roger Ebert and David Thomson argued that the Godfather films work because we never see the inevitable innocent victims of the Corleones’ violence. The only people they kill onscreen are other criminals–usually those bent on killing them. But that argument only works if you assume that young, female sex workers don’t count as innocent victims. In The Godfather (which also made my my A+ list), a Corleone hitman machine guns down a mafia bigwig in bed, killing both the bigwig and a young woman (presumably a mistress or prostitute) in bed with him.

In The Godfather: Part II, the (thankfully) off-screen killing is far worse. Michael’s henchmen kill a bound prostitute in what appears to be a particularly gruesome murder–just to get a senator under the family’s thumb.

Writer Mario Puzo and director/co-writer Francis Ford Coppola want you to know that seven years after taking over his father’s business, Michael Corleone is thoroughly evil. He walks around like a man with a dead soul, sullen, sad, and very paranoid (with good reason). He says he loves his wife and children, but he often treats them with the cold authority he uses with everybody else. The nice young man from the beginning of The Godfather no longer exists. Michael’s tragedy is that, with all of his material success, he knows that spiritually he has failed.

I have a strange relationship with Michael Corleone. By this point in his life, he’s a cold-blooded killer who repulses me. But I remember the younger Michael and still feel some affection for him. I want him to outwit the other gangsters and the crooked politicians lined up against him. Yet the means he uses to achieve his goals (note that murdered prostitute) make my blood run cold.

The Godfather: Part II is one of those rare sequels that’s better than the original. And since The Godfather is one of the greatest films ever made, that’s quite an achievement. Only two sequels made my A+ list of films that I’ve loved for decades and still love–and this is the best of the two.

We first reacquaint ourselves with Michael at a lavish, outdoor party celebrating his son’s confirmation. But the warm, loving, old-world charm of the first film’s wedding reception is long gone. Set on the Nevada shore of Lake Tahoe in 1958, everything at this party looks garish and ugly–conspicuous consumption at its worst.

But that night, someone attempts to kill Michael. Most of the film concerns his struggle to identify and wipe out those responsible. This will put him in an uneasy collaboration with an aging Jewish gangster, clearly based on Meyer Lansky and played by the great acting teacher, Lee Strasberg. It will also take him to Cuba on the eve of the Revolution.

The Godfather: Part II contrasts Michael’s struggle to stay on top with his father’s struggle to get there. Roughly a third of the film plays as a prequel rather than a sequel, showing us the young Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro) in the 1910s and ’20s. Vito is the ultimate family man, completely invested emotionally in his wife and young children. It’s for their sake that he becomes a criminal. As he becomes rich and successful, he becomes something of a local bigshot and hero. People come to him with their problems, and he helps.

De Niro is amazing in the role (he won an Oscar for it). Physically, he’s nothing like Marlon Brando. But his voice and gestures easily allow us to imagine him as the same character, 25 years younger.

By cutting back and forth between these two stories, the film shows us the seeds in Michael’s moral downfall. Vito, with the best of intentions, turned to evil means to make his family comfortable. Decades later, and only years after the patriarch’s death, that decision destroys the family.

As The Godfather: Part II comes to a close, Michael has triumphed against all of his enemies. But he has alienated everyone close to him–or at least those still alive. There’s nothing left in him but regrets.

The A+ List: The Godfather

The Godfather tricks you into rooting for some very bad people. You accept the Corleones because they love each other as family, and because they are ruled over by a seemingly fair, loving, generous, and successful patriarch.

That patriarch, Don Vito Corleone, helps the community, plays with kittens and his grandchildren, and reminds his reckless and impulsive eldest son that “a man who doesn’t spend time with his family isn’t much of a man.” But this warm and sweet old man made his fortune, and continues to enlarge it, in crime. Vice, violence, and even murder are part of his successful business strategy.

I first saw The Godfather in the spring of 1972, during its first run engagement. I loved it from the start, although it took a few years for me to realize just what a breathtaking masterpiece it is. It easily makes my A+ list of films that I have loved for decades. To make the 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.

For the few reading this who haven’ seen The Godfather, this sweeping crime epic tells the story of a high-level but aging mafia boss (Marlon Brando) who passes his crown to his youngest and smartest son, Michael (Al Pacino in the role that made him a star). At the beginning, Michael is a warm, sweet guy who loves his family but wants nothing to do with the business. His WASP girlfriend Kay (Diane Keaton) signifies his movement away from Sicilian values. But incidents beyond his control (well, maybe) drive him into the family business. And as he proves to be extremely capable at that business, his blood turns to ice water. The warmth that made you like Michael, and made you forgive Vito despite his sins, disappear entirely in the new Michael.

godfather pass torch_resized

The screenplay by Mario Puzo (based on his novel) and Francis Ford Coppola (who also directed) gives us time to meet the family and drink in the atmosphere. A long wedding scene early in the movie introduces most of the main characters, with Kay playing the outsider who becomes the audience’s surrogate as she’s introduced to her boyfriend’s family. Then the action moves from the East Coast to Hollywood for a self-enclosed subplot that doesn’t push the story forward but gives us an idea of how the family operates. The main story–involving the new drug trade (the film is set just after World War II)–begins more than 30 minutes into the story. And that is absolutely the right pacing for this story.

Coppola and cinematographer Gordon Willis (known in the business as “The Prince of Darkness”) create an atmosphere that’s both noir and epic, with powerful contrasts of dark and light. In the first scene, the Don meets with various people on business in his dark and shadowy office, while his daughter’s wedding outside gleams with joy and sunlight. These contrasts continue throughout the movie, especially when a crime war runs darkly through the streets of New York while Michael hides in the beautiful, sun-swept mountains of Sicily.

The Godfather is filled with remarkable set pieces. There’s the opening scene where a local undertaker begs the Don for justice he could not get from the courts. There’s the hospital sequence, when Michael has to think fast and bluff armed gunmen to save his father’s life–and then realizes with surprise that his hands aren’t shaking. There’s the climatic baptism scene, where Michael at the church alter repeatedly renounces Satan while his henchmen rub out his real or imagined enemies.

But my favorite is a very subtle one. Michael and Kay come out of a movie theater and flirtatiously joke with each other. Then they disappear behind a newsstand. When they reappear, Kay’s face reflects some very bad news that Michael hasn’t seen.

The title The Godfather could refer to either the Don or Michael, and their fate are clearly intertwined. Vito became a criminal so that Michael and his three siblings could lead a better life. But his decision eventually destroys all of them, either literally or spiritually.

I’ll discuss more of that in my next A+ article, on The Godfather, Part II.

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.

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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