Tuesday, February 13, 2024

The NFR Project: 'The General' (1927)


The General

Dir: Clyde Bruckman, Buster Keaton

Scr: Al Boasberg, Clyde Bruckman, Buster Keaton, Charles Henry Smith, Paul Gerard Smith

Pho: Bert Haines, Devereaux Jennings

Ed: Buster Keaton, Sherman Kell

Premiere: Dec. 31, 1926

75 min.

Buster Keaton’s masterpiece The General is meticulous and precise, beautiful like a set of mathematical propositions, or a Bach cantata. There’s not an extraneous frame – everything leads to a stunning climax that is still the most spectacular gag ever staged. Most importantly, it’s still funny, all the way through.

Keaton’s comic persona here is the one he perfected over the previous decade – the stone-faced, stoic endurer of nature and fate’s insults. He is clever, but guileless, level-headed but awkward. He also happens to be a superbly trained, athletic physical comedian. He is the unsmiling, inventive clown of silent film.

The General is his eighth self-directed feature film, and he and his team of writers and of technical experts were at a peak of efficiency. He had gone into period filmmaking with his Our Hospitality (1923), and here, with the help of 500 extras from the Oregon National Guard, he convincingly recreates the sense and scale and sheer mass of the battles of the Civil War era.

Keaton is Johnnie Gray, a train engineer and solid son of the South. (Keaton wisely puts his protagonist on the side of the underdog.) When war is declared, he attempts to join the Confederate Army, but is rejected because, unbeknownst to him, he is more valuable to the Cause as an engineer. His sweetheart and her family reject him, and his disconsolately returns to the cab of his engine.

However, the Union has a plan. It seeks to steal Buster’s train and ride it back to Northern lines, burning bridges and wrecking track on its way. Buster makes chase on foot, and is soon the only person still going after the train. Still he doggedly pursues the Union men, hurtling via handcar, bicycle, and finally in another engine towards his goal.

Keaton is fascinated with how things work. He loves using stage machinery and camera tricks. In this film, set primarily out of doors, he is still indulging with problems negotiating space in time, but he is doing so in an epic way. He gets to play with real-life, full-sized trains. The trains speed up, slow down, reverse, change tracks, couple and uncouple, do everything but pirouette. Keaton makes these large, clumsy machines lead a kind of elephantine dance.

Buster chases the Yankees, who fortuitously have kidnapped his girlfriend to boot. Discovered to be alone, he must dash away and hide from those he pursued. He comes upon a house in a rainstorm, enters, and finds himself hiding beneath a tableful of plotting Union generals. He discovers their plans, and escapes, having found his girl there as well and rescuing her.

Now the chase is reversed. Buster steals back the General and flees south, with the Union in hot pursuit. Now it’s he and his girlfriend’s task to deter the Yankees. This is does with dimwitted assistance from her, which leads to her being throttled, briefly, before Buster kisses her. Ah, romance.

The girlfriend role is largely ornamental, propelling some of the plot and giving our hero a goal to achieve, that is, union with her. Marion Mack does just fine as the fair Annabelle Lee, taking a few tumbles and generally acting as straight woman. Buster’s real love affair is with the locomotive. He clambers all over it, plumbs its comic possibilities, clearing happy transforming

The crowning moment of absurdity arrives finally when a Union general orders the pursuit train to cross a bridge damaged by fire. Orders are followed, and the general and his army watch as the train teeters and crashes down into the river beneath. Cut back to the straight-faced pain in the general’s face, as he gestures listlessly for his men to go forward.

As Tim Dirks reports, this stunt cost $42,000 – the most expensive shot in silent film history. After the debacle at the bridge, the Southern forces charge against the Union soldiers and drive them back. Buster is now, finally, a hero.

The whole production was massively expensive, and the film did not recoup its cost in its initial run, in addition to being critically panned. It took decades for its dark sense of humor and its kinetic grace to be appreciated.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: Clara Bow in It.



Thursday, February 8, 2024

The NFR Project: 'Flesh and the Devil'


Flesh and the Devil

Dir: Clarence Brown

Scr: Benjamin Glazer, Marian Ainslee

Pho: William H. Daniels

Ed: Lloyd Nosler

Premiere: Dec. 25, 1926

109 min.

This is a story of two people intersecting, gloriously, before one rose to stardom and the other faded away into oblivion. It’s the real-life version of (and perhaps the template for) films such as A Star Is Born. It’s the story of John Gilbert and Greta Garbo.

John Gilbert was an established screen star. He began in the movies in 1915, enduring years of apprenticeship and supporting roles in Hollywood before attaining leading-man fame in 1924, in King Vidor’s His Hour (1924). He was quickly labeled as suitable primarily for romantic leads, and termed “The Great Lover.” He had a contentious relationship with fame.

Greta Garbo was a shy young Swedish actress of 19 when she was chosen to star in The Story of Gosta Berling (1924). She was immediately noted for her beauty and for her subtle acting technique. She quickly gained a prominent role in her next film, G.W. Pabst’s Joyless Street (1925). Meanwhile, Hollywood mogul L.B. Mayer saw her in Berling and vowed to make her a star. With her appearance in The Temptress (1926), only her second Hollywood film, she too was seen as a bankable star, honored as an aloof beauty.

Fate brought the two together in Flesh and the Devil. Their immediate attraction to each other is palpable in this film. At the same time their characters intertwined in a story of tragic love, so did they become a highly publicized couple, moving in together and talking of marriage.

But first, the film. It’s a misogynistic, homophilic tale of two wealthy childhood friends in Germany who swear eternal devotion in their youth. Unfortunately, one of them (Gilbert) falls for a mysterious and amoral woman who neglects to tell him she is married. When her husband finds the two of them, he demands satisfaction. At dawn, the men meet for a duel, and Gilbert slays his rival.

Sent away in disgrace, he asks his friend to take care of Garbo’s character. Three years later, he returns to find that she has married his friend. Once again, he finds himself irresistibly drawn to her. This leads, naturlich, to yet another duel. Fortunately, our friends stop their feuding and reconcile, as Garbo, en route to stop them, falls through the frozen surface of a lake and drowns. Curtain.

It's all fairly standard romantic-drama fare (the rich production design helps elevate the drama), but it is extraordinary to see two people falling in love on camera. Their scene kissing in the garden is iconic. Their chemistry is palpable, and Garbo’s face is astonishingly expressive. Garbo was so pleased that she used director Clarence Brown, and especially cinematographer William H. Daniels, who she felt made her look as good as possible on screen, in many of her future films. Gilbert and Garbo were to make three more silent features together, all of them successful.

Then came the sound era. Garbo, despite her accent, kept making hits. Gilbert, however, did not make the transition effectively. Though it has long been a legend that his voice was not suited for sound film, the reality is that industry politics meant that he was sabotaged. And, quite simply, his star was sinking. Despite a number of attempted comebacks, he never regained his silent-era popularity. He began to drink heavily. Garbo tried to help him by insisting he be cast opposite her in Queen Christina (1933), but despite his skill in that role, it was no use. He received worse and worse roles. Finally, he died of a heart attack in 1936, at the age of 38.

Garbo went on to become a legend. Choosy about her roles, she maintained her screen persona of aloof beauty, for another decade, one of the highest-paid and highest-regarded stars of her time. She retired in 1941, at the age of 36.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: Keaton’s The General.



Tuesday, February 6, 2024

The NFR Project: 'The Battle of the Century'


The Battle of the Century

Dir: Clyde Bruckman

Scr: Hal Roach, H.M. Walker

Pho: George Stevens

Ed: Richard C. Currier

Premiere: Dec. 31, 1927


I love Laurel and Hardy. I consider their films, especially their shorts – which did not necessitate padding in the form of an involved narrative and some musical numbers, as their features sometimes did – to be the perfect cure for what ails you. Their subtle interplay, their exquisite timing, their deadpan slapstick, their flailings against fate and each other, and the obvious deep connection between the two makes for comedy of a heightened order, best absorbed in concentrated, bite-size pieces.

In The Battle of the Century, we see them at the very beginning of their creative partnership. Stan Laurel was a vaudeville comedian who had come to America (along with an unknown named Charlie Chaplin) in Fred Karno’s variety troupe in 1912, and who wandered into filmmaking out West as a solo comedy performer. Oliver Hardy was a boy tenor who literally grew into “heavy” roles, playing the villain or second banana in over 100 early movies. They were teamed by Hal Roach, the expert producer, director, and screenwriter of silent comedy.

Stan was the innocent, the dim-witted naif and Ollie was the overbearing bully, but they were bosom companions and stuck together no matter what the (usually awful) outcome of their adventures turned out to be. This balance of personalities resulted in enduring comedy.

With this film, they had expert help. Roach co-wrote the script and Clyde Bruckman was a highly skilled comedy director. Even more importantly, the film bears the credit “Supervised by Leo McCarey.” McCarey’s excellent sense of fun and brilliant staging of gags would be made obvious in his later films as a director, including Duck Soup with the Marx Brothers, The Awful Truth, and Going My Way – and would win him three Oscars to boot. The director of photography was none other than George Stevens, who would go on to win two Oscars as a director himself.

We open on a stock setting for a comedy – a boxing ring. Up against the monstrous Thunderclap Callahan (L & H regular Noah Young) is poor Stan, Canvasback Clump. Callahan glares mercilessly across the ring; Stan responds with his typical deer-in-the-headlights look. Ollie is his hapless manager, to whom Stan can’t really pay attention to. Stan accidentally knocks down the Champ, but he keeps interrupting the referee’s count by peering over his shoulder at the fallen fighter. Eventually Stan and the ref go at it, rolling around the ring.

The Champ gets his wits back and of course fells Stan with one punch. The pair win $5 as a result and Ollie spends it on an insurance policy for Stan -- $1,000 in case of injury. (The insurance salesman is future character actor Eugene Pallette.) Next, we find the two walking down a city street. Stan nearly slips on a banana peel (yes, even then a tired premise). Ollie tries to make him slip again, but only succeeds in making a policeman fall down. Ollie diverts responsibility to Stan, who gets a nice clonk on the head with a nightstick. He doesn’t cry out in the pain, he simply goes to sleep standing up. It’s only when Ollie wakes him does he begin one of his distinctive crying spells.

In the meantime, the errant peel trips up someone else – this time a man bearing a tray of pies (Charlie Hall, another L & H regular). The boys again try to trade blame, but it’s on Oliver the hapless pieman vents his spleen, tweaking his face. He turns away, and Stan blows a raspberry. Hall calmly grabs up a pie and smashes it into Ollie’s face.

Now the comic beauty of the film comes into full bloom. By this time, the pie in the face was one of the most overused comic moments in pictures. Those who made the film were evidently thoroughly tired of the conceit, and decided to make the pie fight of all pie fights, once and for all. [They were perhaps bested by Blake Edwards, considering his massive pie fight in The Great Race (1965).]

Oliver calmly considers his pie-spattered self. He thinks. He goes to the pies, and gets ready to pie Charlie Hall. He misses and hits a woman. She enters the fray, tries to pie Ollie, and hits yet another bystander.

There is a slow, geometric progression of outrage. Innocent parties get pied. They stop. They fume. Then they in turn, calmly and deliberately, try to pie those who pied them. Each time the pies land, the people involved rush to the pie van to get fresh pies, waiting respectfully for everyone to be ready before beginning another assault. The increase in flying baked goods grows exponentially.

Soon pies are flying up and down the avenue, with dozens of combatants and thousands of pies (somewhere between 3,000 and 10,000 pies were used!). Finally, Stan and Ollie run from the police, around the corner and out of the frame.

Once and for all, the comic pie fight was put to bed. The epic scale of the collective insanity of humanity has rarely received a better rendition on film.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: Flesh and the Devil.