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Author Topic: The General (1926) - Buster Keaton  (Read 170 times)

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Offline Paul Pain

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The General (1926) - Buster Keaton
« on: November 18, 2017, 07:51:20 AM »
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  • Watch THE GENERAL in the box above and get the Damfino's note here:
    http://www.busterkeaton.com/Films/C09_The_General.html

    Imagine if you went to see a movie and saw incredible acting, intensely dramatic scenes, blythe moments of humor, accurate (albeit fictional still) depictions of a past era and a war fought in it, and a dynamic romantic subplot.  Every part of this movie is absolutely riveting and could hardly be more enrapturing.  And then you walk home and say, "This movie sucks.  I wanted to see a Buster Keaton gasser and instead got one of the greatest movies in history."  Read more here.

    Well, folks, that's what the critics pretty much said of THE GENERAL.  Today widely acclaimed as one of the all-time greats, it was in its own day crucified by the movie critics for the crime of not being funny enough.  Even Keaton thought he was making a comedy and was denied the use of the real General on account of it.

    But all those things I said in my first paragraph are true.  This movie has incredible acting top-to-bottom in ways I never imagined possible for such a film.  There are some breath-taking moments, such as Buster in the Union occupied house at night, when he's on the train, during the battle, and approaching the bridge.  It has humor when Buster is trying to register for the service and when he's riding the cowcatcher.  It provides an accurate depiction of what almost every Union and Rebel soldier fought for: their honor, their families, and what they believed was right (doesn't make it right).  Honestly, read up on tariffs, slavery, and States' rights, the three big issues in the lead-up to the Civil War.  Add in to this the romantic subplot, and I find absolutely nothing wrong with this film except that maybe some of the chase scenes are a bit long for some people's taste.

    As an Italian-American raised in the North and now living in the South, this movie speaks volumes to me.  We have potential for some great insights on this one, so please ask lots of questions!

    11/10 [poke] [poke] [poke] [poke] [poke] [poke] [poke] [poke] [poke] [poke] [poke]
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    Offline metaldams

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    Re: The General (1926) - Buster Keaton
    « Reply #1 on: November 18, 2017, 06:34:27 PM »
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  •       I'm going to start off with a bit of possible trivia.  I'll preface by saying I've seen THE GENERAL dozens of times, am a big fan of the actor I'm about to mention, and would like a second opinion on this, as this is the first time I've noticed what I'm about to say.  Watch the scene where the Union generals gather while Keaton is spying under the table midway through the film.  The actor who burns Keaton with the cigar....tell me that's not Boris Karloff.  It looks just like him.  I rewound several times to make sure and I believe it's Karloff.  This would make sense because this is five years before FRANKENSTEIN, and at this stage Karloff was an unknown playing small roles or supporting parts.  Going on imdb.com, Karloff is listed, but with an "unconfirmed" next to his name.  I say it's him, what do you guys think?

          Second thing I want to do before getting to the meat of the review is mention something Paul touched on, and that's the Civil War aspect and culture.  I am 38 years old as of this writing, so we're only talking about 15 years or so when I watched THE GENERAL in a college classroom with no trouble at all, no disclaimers needed.  I can't imagine that today.  Paul, congrats on being a millenial who seems to have a nuanced view on the Civil War, understanding there were several important factors involved and it is more complicated than having anything but a one sided view against the South makes one a Nazi.  The Civil War was a travesty that deserves some serious thought, research, and more than a quick assumption.  I mention this because for several decades now, THE GENERAL has been hailed as Keaton's greatest work, but I can seriously see this changing over the next ten years due to Keaton helping the South in this film.  I hope it doesn't come to that, because THE GENERAL is truly an amazing film.

          From a pure filmmaking point of view, THE GENERAL is a beautiful looking film.  I've heard it said THE GENERAL comes the closest of all Civil War films to looking like a Matthew Brady photograph, a sentiment I agree with.  The natural outdoor scenery is beautiful, and the moving camera going along with the speed of those trains must have been a lot of work to accomplish.  Oh, and during the "Karloff scene," love that shot of Keaton's eye through the table cloth hole followed by Marion Mack (who does a great job in this film and is not afraid to get into the physical comedy), being seen through the same hole.  A wonderful bit of filmmaking there.  The battle scenes towards the end are also well done and I gotta mention the train being destroyed on the burning bridge.  That is considered to be the most expensive shot in silent cinema.  The wreckage from that scene I hear remained there for about 15 years until the metal was used during World War II.

          From a comedy perspective, again, it works.  I wonder if the humor was just too subtle amongst the drama and action for audiences of the day?  Either way, I got laughs for sure.  Those kids following Keaton in perfect harmony, even going around the half circle in sync with Keaton, made for some good humor.  Very mechanical yet humorous at the same time, something Jeaton often does.  Think of him following his rival in SHERLOCK, JR. for something similar.  Nothing tops the mechanical timing of that cannon going off the exact second it's at an angle where it can hit the enemy around the corner.  This is the kind of thing I have trouble explaining (I'm no Walter Kerr), but it's an amazingly timed physical gag.  Also gotta love that picture Keaton gives Marion Mack.  Just a stoned faced Kaeton in front of his train, ALWAYS gets a laugh out of me.  Again, words fail me, you just gotta see the picture, it's visual comedy.  Also love the way Keaton gets woken up while holding Marion Mack, an acorn falling on the head.  Another funny, subtle gag.

          The pure danger of this film is also remarkable.  I already mentioned how crazy it must have been for the cameraman with all that movement, well, same with Keaton!  The way he goes back and forth between fast moving cargo is breathtaking.  When Jackie Chan calls Keaton (and Lloyd), an influence, it's stuff like that you gotta imagine.  Also, how many creative things did they come up with to stop the train doing the chasing?  Water pipes, trees with ropes, the track being moved, the track being destroyed, setting fire to a cargo to block a train...loads of creativity here.

          Not really a criticism, because this observation doesn't bother me, but I've never heard anybody mention this before.  Whenever Keaton talks of his MGM films, he complains they're farces where one explanation to a character can solve the situation and the comedy is done.  While it wouldn't end the whole comedy, in THE GENERAL, if the recruiter simply told Keaton he's more valuable as an engineer to the South versus being a soldier, Keaton would have had an explanation to his girl and her family and the temporarily strained relationship would have been avoided.  Oh well, extreme nitpicking for a masterpiece, and I hope it continues to be hailed as one.

    10/10

    Offline Umbrella Sam

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    Re: The General (1926) - Buster Keaton
    « Reply #2 on: November 18, 2017, 09:10:01 PM »
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  • Ah, THE GENERAL. Often hailed as one of the greatest movies of all time, by the likes of people such as Orson Welles and often considered to be the quintessential Keaton film. So, is it bad that I think that the film is just a tiny bit overrated?...



    Ok, Ok, hear me out! THE GENERAL is a great movie and definitely is among Keaton’s classics, but I personally do not consider it to be the greatest film that he ever made. Why? Well, let’s start from the beginning.

    The film starts by establishing the era as well as Keaton’s character. Paul and metaldams are correct in that the Civil War is more complicated than people tend to think and, believe me, THE GENERAL is nothing like THE BIRTH OF A NATION, which is an undoubtedly racist film despite its significance in film history.

    The opening scenes are pretty good both in terms of comedy and drama. I like the way Keaton gets the kids out of the house and he shows off some athleticism when getting to the recruitment office. The whole recruitment aspect of the story, though, does bother me, and not just because they didn’t tell Keaton why they rejected him. Keaton did seem to understand his profession might have something to do with it when he pretended to be a bartender. My problem is how he just walks away from the father and brother, deciding that looking like a coward somehow looks better than being rejected. I also don’t like how they set up his girlfriend leaving him either. She doesn’t give him much of a chance to defend himself and comes off as unlikable as a result. It’s as though they’re trying to set up that he has to prove himself somehow, despite the fact that he clearly had all intentions to fight for his country.

    We then move forward in time by about a year and get the set-up of the Union spies stealing the train. At this point, we find out two things about this movie: one being that this has less emphasis on comedy than usual and the other being that this is a chase movie. The first point is not a big problem; besides the questionable opening set-up, the dramatic elements work pretty well for the most part and the film still does throw in comedic moments as well. The other point is a bit more of a problem. As Paul mentions, these scenes may be a bit long for some people’s tastes and unfortunately I tend to be one of those people. After a while, the amount of variation that can be done is lessened a lot, with the Union spies constantly throwing out wood as an obstacle. Still, that bit with the cannon is genius and a lot of the shots are photographed very well, notably when the train is going under the bridge.

    Thankfully, the film does take a break from the train bits when Keaton crosses the enemy lines. It’s staged in the dark and the rain, which instantly reminds me of OUR HOSPITALITY, which is definitely a good thing. Regarding the scene with the Union generals, metaldams, I agree that it looks like Karloff, though upon looking into it, this seems to actually be a common misconception among fans. Apparently, the actor is actually Mike Donlin. Here’s the article I found that talks about it:
    http://rjbuffalo.com/the-general.html
    (Note: this information appears towards the end).

    Keaton eventually does take back The General and the chase is once again on, except that Keaton and Mack are now being chased by the Union soldiers, which thankfully doesn’t feel as repetitive as before, since Keaton comes up with more ways to block the other train. One of the biggest highlights here is when the Union train falls into the water, which is a very bittersweet moment. On the one hand, it is an amazing visual aspect, considering that it is an actual train getting destroyed. However, this is also considered to be the shot that singularly ruined Keaton’s independence and Keaton could have easily used a miniature (I personally think that miniatures look pretty convincing most of the time). Still, that Union general’s reaction is priceless.

    The fight scenes are fantastic. They’re very well executed and they even manage to throw in some nice visual gags like with Keaton’s sword. Also, while I don’t like how the whole “Keaton having to prove himself” set-up was initially handled, I do have to admit that there still is a certain charm to seeing him get promoted to lieutenant at the end, and they even manage to create another funny visual closing gag out of this.

    The supporting cast is fine. While I don’t think Marion Mack’s character is written well at first, she does do enough of a good job with her acting and she does help out a lot when it comes to putting barriers up for the Union soldiers. The Confederate general is intimidating and authoritative enough as well, though, still, the supporting cast isn’t particularly great.

    So, overall, the film is very good, but I personally think that it is just a bit overrated. Keaton was able to make films that were very good at combining dramatic storytelling and comedy, such as OUR HOSPITALITY and a couple of upcoming films and while THE GENERAL’s story is good, I just don’t think that it entirely lives up to its reputation. Still, THE GENERAL is worth checking out if you’re a Keaton fan and want to see a different change of pace for him.

    9.5 out of 10

    Offline metaldams

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    Re: The General (1926) - Buster Keaton
    « Reply #3 on: November 19, 2017, 08:22:44 AM »
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  •       Umbrella Sam, thanks for the link showing the Karloff guy is Mike Donlin.  Looking him up, he was actually a baseball player during the Deadball era and was a major part of the 1905 New York Giants World Series championship team!   That and 1908 were his only real complete seasons, though, as apparently alcohol and a desire to act derailed his career, but he put up some good numbers when he played, having a 144 career OPS +.  Buster also loved baseball, so not surprised he'd used Donlin.  Still resembles Karloff.

    https://www.baseball-reference.com/players/d/donlimi01.shtml
    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mike_Donlin

           As for Keaton saying he's a bartender the second time, I don't think it's because he's aware his profession got him denied the first time more so than he's trying to pass himself off as a different person (he's also hiding his face and changing his name).  Still, whatever flaws there are in this part are so minor in my eyes compared to the rest of the film I can easily forgive it.  I actually think THE GENERAL is tied as Keaton's best with SHERLOCK, JR. and a film we've yet to discuss.
           




    Offline Paul Pain

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    Re: The General (1926) - Buster Keaton
    « Reply #4 on: November 21, 2017, 03:29:22 PM »
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  • Second thing I want to do before getting to the meat of the review is mention something Paul touched on, and that's the Civil War aspect and culture.  I am 38 years old as of this writing, so we're only talking about 15 years or so when I watched THE GENERAL in a college classroom with no trouble at all, no disclaimers needed.  I can't imagine that today.  Paul, congrats on being a millennial who seems to have a nuanced view on the Civil War, understanding there were several important factors involved and it is more complicated than having anything but a one sided view against the South makes one a Nazi.  The Civil War was a travesty that deserves some serious thought, research, and more than a quick assumption.  I mention this because for several decades now, THE GENERAL has been hailed as Keaton's greatest work, but I can seriously see this changing over the next ten years due to Keaton helping the South in this film.  I hope it doesn't come to that, because THE GENERAL is truly an amazing film.

    Sadly, few people are capable of such thought as we are; they're too brainwashed into blind hatred of whatever they weren't raised in.
    #1 fire kibitzer