Movie review: The General (1926)

I first discovered Buster Keaton around a dozen years ago. I quickly devoured all of his silent films that I could find. I recently revisited The General.

Buster Keaton was one of the masters of the silent film genre. He is known for the physical feats in his films, which inspired Jackie Chan decades later.

In The General, Keaton shows off some of his physical prowess but not to the extent that he does in his other films. His use of physical expressions to tell the story speaks to his position among the greats of the silent genre.

The movie utilizes what became a well-worn movie theme: boy loves girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl. Keaton plays a train engineer in lover with his train (The General) and a woman. The story begins at the start of the Civil War and every man is signing up. Keaton’s beloved refuses to talk to him until he is in uniform. Only he can’t seem to get in uniform. The recruiters refuse to recruit him: he is more valuable to the cause as a train engineer.

Through twists and turns and several train chases, Keaton manages to learn about and then foil Northern plans of attacking the South. In the end he saves the day, joins the army, and wins the girl. The General is a good intro to Buster Keaton and his silent films.

Silent Halloween at the Indiana Landmarks Center

Silent films. Accompanied with organ music. In the historic Indiana Landmarks Center. This was not something I could pass up, even when the weather turned nasty and slushy snow was streaming down—the first snow of the season.

I love the Indiana Landmarks Center. It is such an amazingly restored building. (See my earlier blog post about touring the Center.) In honor of the evening, I silently thanked Cook for all of the money that he donated towards the renovation. I smiled as I overheard again and again people marveling at the building.

Before the evening festivities began, I entertained myself by wandering the building, visiting what was the main entrance of the church with staircases flanking the grand fireplace. I peered in at the wooden-lined Cook theatre. And I visited my favorite fireplace out of the five in the building—located in the bottom floor art gallery—a beautiful aqua-tiled fireplace in the Arts and Crafts tradition.

The theme for the evening was pirates. Many people had dressed the part for the costume contest. Still others simply dressed in costume—witches, The Riddler. (I learned from a nearby conversation that the image of witches arose from the medieval practice of women being brewmasters—they had brooms to sweep the grain, cats to kill the mice who ate the grain, and cauldrons to brew the beer.)

I laughed whenever I looked at a certain gentleman who came as the Pointy-Haired Boss from the Dilbert comic strip. Apparently his hair pretty much stands on end by itself. He just shaved his head, teased out the two tufts, and viola!

The evening was full of food, drink, conversation with strangers, a costume contest, door prizes, and of course, silent films. We were fortunate to have the world-renown Mark Herman playing the organ while the silent films rolled across the screen. His playing fed the emotions of the films but was unobtrusive; the music informed the films but did not overpower them—the way good organ music accompanying silent films should be.

The film list started with a cartoon: Felix the Cat The Ghost Breaker (1923). (In modern parlance, Ghost Breaker means Ghost Buster.) It was a treat to see the real Felix the Cat, who was more cat-like in his behavior than later renditions of him. Early cartoonists did some neat effects, such as ripples down Felix’s back—neat effects that just weren’t continued in more modern cartoons.

Next we were regaled with a short from Stan Laurel during his pre-Laurel and Hardy days: Mr. Pyckle and Dr. Pride (1925). Laurel’s take on the classic story was a visual treat of his physical humor. The evil Dr. Pride stole ice cream from kids, popped bags next to women that made them faint, and shot spit wads at kids and adults alike.

The feature film was The Black Pirate (1926) with Douglas Fairbanks. It was amazing to see the physical ruggedness of Fairbanks in action, leaping and performing feats on his own. More often than not, the film elicited chuckles from the audience. (Special effects from the early movie days do not often fare well with modern moviegoers.)

I left the beautiful Center not only laughing at the movies and in reactions to the guffaws from the moviegoers seated behind me, but by spotting the Pointy-Haired Boss one final time.