Sunday, November 30, 2014

Sight & Sound Sunday: The General (1926)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 poll rank: #34

In the discussion of City Lights in this column, Charlie Chaplin was identified as a standout director and silent film star who managed to retain creative control and box office success after the genesis of the sound era. His contemporary, Buster Keaton, the auteur and star behind The General, was one of the silent era's greatest innovators, pushing the medium forward through technical daring and elaborate action sequences. However, unlike Chaplin, Keaton fell victim to the changing times, only being re-evaluated in recent years as a unique talent.

The General, his 1926 film co-directed by Clyde Bruckman, was the film that, perhaps paradoxically, saw him operating at the peak of his artistic abilities and marked the beginning of the end for his career. The film follows Johnnie Gray (Keaton), a railroad engineer who tries to enlist for the Confederacy at the start of the American Civil War. He is denied, however, because his job is considered too valuable; his fiance, Annabelle (Marion Mack), refuses to speak with him until he's in uniform. When a group of Union officers steals his train, Johnnie accidentally stumbles upon a Union plan for attack, and must race against them to warn the Confederate troops and save Annabelle's life.

What the film does most impressively is in its technical aspects. Keaton was never one to shy away from going for big moments, and The General has several, serving as a silent would-be blockbuster had it not flopped.

More after the jump.

At the time of its production, The General was hugely expensive, with an estimated budget of $750,000 (USD). As such, the film features a number of impressive setpieces, including two different chase sequences involving more than one train. Keaton insisted on using real, working locomotives for the picture, as well as performing all of his own stunts. This meant that Keaton himself was maneuvering on, off, and around moving trains, often going at speeds at which it was unsafe to do so. This also meant using a real train for the film's signature image: a Union locomotive crossing a burning bridge and collapsing into the gorge. Quite simply, Keaton's film displayed an audacity that very few other silent directors were willing to attempt.

That audacity proved to be his undoing, however, at least at that point in his career. Though his films were often celebrated by critics for the daring achievements that Keaton was accomplishing, audiences didn't take to them in the same way that they did his earlier shorts with comedian Fatty Arbuckle. The General only ended up making roughly $500,000 domestically, failing to turn a profit for the studio. Contemporary critics didn't take to the film either, with many noting that it is far more dramatic than comedic and wondering if setting a "comedy" around the American Civil War was in good taste. It was the last film that Keaton was able to produce independently and exert full artistic control over; he would later sign a contract with MGM that would require him to do sound films, use a stunt double, and relinquish the director's chair to the studio's choice.

The irony here was that the films Keaton did for MGM were among the most successful in his career, even as he considered them his worst work. It's only be in retrospect that films such as The General have come to be appreciated as silent masterworks. The difference between Keaton and, say, Chaplin, was that while the latter made very human films that were still first and foremost comedies, Keaton was more detached from the humanity of the story he was telling, instead focusing his films on the visual possibilities of the medium. This isn't to say that other silent filmmakers like Chaplin and Harold Lloyd didn't have a keen eye for visuals; naturally they did, since silent films almost completely rely on visual humor. But Keaton executed visual gags that were so extravagant and precise that it's hard to imagine anyone else even attempting them.

Ultimately, when it comes to lists such as Sight & Sound's "The Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time," ambition matters more than popular success. This is why The General is one of their highest-ranking silent films: Keaton is operating at the peak of his talents, performing cinematic feats that were (and some may argue still are) unparalleled. His film mixed comedy and drama, action and romance, elaborate stunts with goofy gags. In many ways, it could be argued that Keaton helped lay out the blueprint for the modern blockbuster. The General and Keaton himself were ahead of the times, and as a result, they fell victim to their time, only to be vindicated when the rest of the cinema community caught up.

On the next "Sight & Sound Sunday": Late Spring (1949)

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