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.

My Saturday: A whole lot of silent films at the Castro

I spent this Saturday at the Castro, where the San Francisco Silent Film Festival ran a one-day festival called–appropriately enough–A Day of Silents. They showed five programs, each with live musical accompaniment.

The Black Pirate

The festival got off to a slow start due to technical problems. The first movie, The Black Pirate, started more than 20 minutes late due to audio issues with the Alloy Orchestra. The sound problems were still apparent for the first few minutes of the screening/performance.

Someone must have fixed something, since the problem disappeared, allowing us to enjoy the three-man “Orchestra” play their exciting and utterly appropriate score. They really caught the spirit of this silly entertainment. Producer, writer, and star Douglas Fairbanks plays a nobleman out to destroy the pirates responsible for his father’s death. He does so by joining their band, becoming their leader, leaping all over the place like a jackrabbit. It’s all good fun.

The Black Pirate is, I believe, only the second feature film shot entirely in Technicolor, and by far the most ambitious. In those days, Technicolor could only capture two of the three primary colors, but Fairbanks’ team did excellent work with this limited palette.

Around China With a Movie Camera

The only program at the festival that wasn’t a narrative feature, this collection of travelogue excerpts, home movies, and other actualities provided a glimpse of China from the beginning of motion pictures until the late 1940s. For the most part fascinating, it showed us the different races and ethnicities of the people we westerners tend to lump together as “Chinese.” It shows us a China seemingly untouched by western forces, and a China overwhelmed by them. The clips were arranged geographically, not chronologically.

This particular collection was put together by the British Film Institute. New intertitles introduced each section, saying where, when and by who they were shot–except for when the authors of these titles had to admit that they didn’t know.

Donald Sosan gave his usual excellent but not distracting accompaniment on piano and Macintosh. (Yes, you read that properly. He uses the Mac for synthesizing other instruments. )

The Grim Game

This Harry Houdini vehicle just may have the silliest plot of any melodrama I have ever seen (not counting science fiction or fantasy). The hero, an ace reporter, frames himself for murder as part of a scheme to save his paper–and then confides his plan with three evil men.

But the story is just a vehicle for showing off Houdini’s acrobatics and escape artist skills in one scene after another. And on that level, it was fun.

I could see why Houdini, one of the most popular entertainers of the early 20th century, never really made it big in movies. His acting range is limited, and he lacks onscreen charisma. From what I’ve read, he had considerable charisma in live performances, and women swooned over him.

Donald Sosan did his usual excellent accompaniment.

The Inhuman Woman

And I thought the Germans were the cinematic impressionists of the 1920s. This French film is so over-the-top impressionistic that it makes Caligari feel like a documentary.

The plot revolves around a famous and heartless singer/femme fatale. Men seem willing to kill or die for her, although she struck me as someone I wouldn’t want sitting next to me at a dinner party. The movie is really about the wild imagery, from servants wearing baby-face masks to the sharp angles of the décor. But while the images were amazing, I found it hard to get emotionally involved with the story. Since the movie ran over two hours, that became a serious problem.

But two things saved The Inhuman Woman for me:

1) The Alloy Orchestra’s score was just amazing. Alloy excels when working with expressionism, and they took to The Inhuman Woman like like a cat to salmon. For much of the film, I enjoyed the images primarily as an accompaniment to the music.

2) The climax, which clearly inspired James Whale’s Frankenstein movies, was exciting and thrilling.


The day ended with the best film in the bunch.

Anna May Wong gives a great performance in this British drama about dancing and sex in a London nightclub. She plays a scullery maid who becomes a successful exotic (i.e., Chinese) dancer after sleeping with her boss (she deserves the job for her dancing talent, too). Since the club’s leading dancer is also the boss’ lover, and Wong’s character has a boyfriend, the story becomes not so much a love triangle as a love rectangle.

It’s sad that the American Wong had to go to England to play a character who wasn’t an Oriental stereotype. But it’s wonderful that she got this chance to play a fully fleshed-out human being in this complex tragedy.

A silent film set in a nightclub, with a lot of dancing, poses special challenges for musical accompanists. And musicians Donald Sosin (on piano and Macintosh) and John Mader (on percussion) were more than ready for the challenge. Their score was often jazzy, appropriately Chinese, and always served the story.

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

Coming in December: Day of Silents & Alamo Drafthouse

It’s a little early to write about December, but here are two events I want to tell you about right away. In fact, I wanted to tell you about them weeks ago, but I was too busy.

A Day of Silents

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival will run a one-day festival at the Castro on Saturday, December 5. As one would expect, it’s going to be a very long day…but probably a fun one.

I’ve only seen one of the five programs scheduled: Douglas Fairbanks’ The Black Pirate (11:00am). Fairbanks was the top action hero of his day, and also an auteur who wrote and produced (but didn’t direct) his movies. This swashbuckler isn’t his best movie, but it’s still a lot of fun.

In his only pirate movie, Fairbanks plays a nobleman who joins a band of scurvy buccaneers in order to take them down in revenge for his father’s death. The movie contains one of Fairbanks most spectacular stunts–and yes, he did it, himself. Fairbanks sticks his knife into the top of a sail and slides down, holding onto only the a knife. Of course there were a lot of behind-the-scenes tricks to make it safer than it appears, but it was still dangerous and looks amazing. The stunt was ineptly recreated in the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie.

This was Fairbank’s only color movie, shot in two-color Technicolor. To my knowledge, it’s the first feature shot entirely in Technicolor that wasn’t financed and produced by the Technicolor company. For decades, The Black Pirate was available only in black-and-white; the color was restored in the 1990s. This will be my first chance to see it in color on the big screen.

The Alloy Orchestra will provide the musical accompaniment.

It will be followed by:

  • Around China with a Movie Camera
    (1:00): A selection of newsreels and travelogues shot in China. Live musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin.
  • The Grim Game
    (3:00): A melodrama staring the famous escape artist Harry Houdini. Live musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin.
  • The Inhuman Woman (6:30): Can one make a good silent film around a singer? We’ll find out with this French film, which the Festival describes as a “fantasy.” Live musical accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra.
  • Piccadilly (9:15): I seldom stay for the last film of the night at the Silent Film Festival, but I just might with this one. The always-amazing Anna May Wong plays a scullery maid turned dancer in this British film. Live musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin.

Alamo Drafthouse at the New Mission

Movie lovers in Texas, New York, and other locations have enjoyed Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas for years. Now it’s our turn.

The Alamo Drafthouse company has restored The New Mission Theater (in the Mission, of course), and it will open December 17 with the new Star Wars movie.

I’ve yet to attend a Drafthouse theater, but the company’s reputation for good beer, good food (meals as well as snacks), and good projection seems promising. They screen mostly new movies, with some classics–often of the camp variety.

Judging from some of the photos on their Facebook page, The New Mission looks spectacular. And even though they have chopped it up into a multiplex, They’ve kept enough of the original to have one spectacular auditorium.

Or, at least, that’s what the photographs have led me to believe.

I’ve added the New Mission to the list of theaters this blog covers.

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.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 77 other followers