The General (1926) Review

8/28/14

The General (1926) Director: Joseph Frank “Buster” Keaton

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★★★★★

Buster Keaton’s monumental film The General was inspired by an historical event called the “Great Locomotive Chase.” During the Civil War in 1862 volunteers from the union army commandeered a train and heavily destroyed infrastructure in the South from Tennessee, such as the communication wires. It had a low box office turnout, despite its massive budget. The film unfortunately lost Buster Keaton his independence as a filmmaker.

The General can be rightly viewed as a cinematic masterpiece. It is quite possibly Keaton’s greatest film, along with Sherlock, Jr. While not respected in its own day, The General is a truly magnificent film that has certainly withstood the test of time.

The film follows the story of Johnnie Grey (Buster Keaton) who travels to Georgia to see one of the loves of his life, Annabelle Lee (his other love is his train The General). When the Civil War breaks out, he rushes to the office to enlist, however he is rejected. The officer claims he will be of more use as an engineer. Annabelle gives Johnnie the cold shoulder because he is not brave enough to enlist. Later, Annabelle goes to visit her injured father on the General. Union robbers hijack the train and take Annabelle hostage, and Johnnie chases after her. He winds up chasing the train all the way behind Union enemy lines.

He goes incognito and rescues Annabelle. They escape on the General back to Chattanooga where he warns of a Union attack. They rally together and chase the union army back up North. He is finally promoted by the Confederate army and Annabelle Lee falls for him.

Much of the film, including the famous train moving across the collapsing bridge scene, was filmed in Cottage Grove, Oregon using over 500 extras from the Oregon National Guard. The scene is famous for being the most extravagant and expensive scene shot during the silent film era, and they only had one opportunity to get it right. The train was left sitting in the river until 1944-45 when it was salvaged for scrap metal for the second world war. Keaton also performed all of the highly dangerous stunts himself, such as jumping on and off of moving trains.

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Buster Keaton considered The General to be his best film and Orson Welles later said it is “the greatest comedy ever made, the greatest Civil War film ever made, and perhaps the greatest film ever made.”

Fritz Lang

Fritz Lang was born in 1890 in Austria Hungary before joining the Austrian army during World War I. He was severely injured and suffered from shll-shock whih ave him time to begin writing films while recovering.

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After the war, he moved to Germany, then the Weimar Republic, to work with UFA Studios to start a career in film. He wrote and directed several powerful and influential films in Germany includingMetropolis and M and Testament of Dr. Mabuse. He quickly rose as a prominent figure in the Expressionist movement and earned himself the nickname, “The Master of Darkness”.

With the rise of the Nazis in 1933-1934, Lang fled Germany for Paris and then to the United States where he began a twenty year career in Hollywood that produced a number of notable “film noir” movies.Though his later career was generally forgotten by critics, on his death in 1976 in Los Angeles, he began to be regarded as one of the great early directors of cinema.

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Sergei Mikhaylovich Eisenstein

Sergei Eisenstein was born in Riga Latvia in 1898 and was Jewish via his paternal grandparents. The family moved to St. Petersburg in 1910 where Eisenstein studied architecture and engineering. This education was to have a tremendous impact on his later experimental film making. He studied the works of Da Vinci and Freud, and he felt that there was room for renaissance architecture in the modern world to provide an antidote for the disorienting space left by technology and the machine age.

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After joining the Red Army in the wake of rhe October 1917 Revolution, he went to join The People’s Theatre in Moscow where he quickly became a director.

In 1924 he made a revolutionary film called Strike and published his theories on montage of attractions editing in which random scenes are spliced into the film to create a desired psychological effect. The following year, he made a masterpiece entitled Battleship Potemkin followed by a 2 hour epic called October. He made several experimental films and epics that were in accordance with Stalin’s policy of glorifying Russian heroes. Eisenstein died shortly after his 50th birthday in 1948.

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Joseph Frank “Buster” Keaton

Buster Keaton was born into a family of vaudeville performers in Kansas , and was also named the sixth Joseph in a long line of family members named Joseph. In later life, Keaton would tell a story of how he recieved the nickname “Buster.” One day while tumbling in his family’s vaudeville act, Harry Houdini was in the audience and remarked that he was quite a real “buster” for taking some great falls. In The Three Keatons, he was known as the indestructible boy.

At the age of 21, Keaton’s father’s alcoholism threatened the stability of the vaudeville act and he and his family began to move into the new medium of film. Keaton then served in the U.S. Army in France  during World War I. During this time he suffered a severe ear infection that impaired his hearing for the rest of his life.

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Upon his return to domestic life, Keaton met Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle ad together they partnered on several comedic films that led to the height of Fatty Arbuckle’s career. After learning much about the film business Arbuckle, Buster Keaton headed out to become an independent film maker starting with films like The Cameraman, Steamboat Bill, Jr., and The Passionate Plumber. These were soon followed with classics like Sherlock Jr. and feature length  movies, like The General.

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In 1928, Keaton’s life spiraled out of control. He signed with MGM and lost many of his film making rights. With the advent of talkies, Keaton fell out of favor. His wife, actress Natalie took their two kids and divorced Keaton leaving him to sink alcoholism and depression. In 1934 he filed for bankruptcy with assets totaling $12,000.

Through the 1940s and 1950s he made a steady comeback starring as himself in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard and Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight. Keaton reissued The General that was met with tremendous praise and in 1959, he was awarded a special Academy Award. He suffered from cancer and passed away in his home in Hollywood Hills in 1966.

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Sir Charles “Charlie” Spencer Chaplin

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Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin was born in April 1889 in South London, though there is no official record of his birth. He was born to two entertainers and his childhood was fraught with poverty and hardship as his parents became estranged, his father died before Chaplin was ten, and he had a tumultuous relationship with them both. Chaplin had to take his mother to an infirmary when she developed a severe psychosis brought on by an infection of syphilis and extreme malnutrition.

Chaplin’s lifelong dream was to be an actor, and he dropped out of school officially at the age of 13 in pursuit of his dream. Chaplin began working with his brother in stage comedy and vaudeville skits as “The Eight Lancashire Lads”. During his second tour of the United States, Chaplin was invited to join the New York Motion Picture Company (Keystone) to replace a comedic actor. He began to learn everything about the new medium of film, and in 1914 he debuted his famous “Tramp” character to audiences in Kid Auto Races at Venice. His directorial debut occurred with the advent of Caught in the Rain, which he promised to pay $1,500 back to the company if it was a flop.

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Chaplin began receiving numerous offers, including one from the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company for $1,250 per week. During the year of 1915, Chaplin became a household name and a cultural phenomenon. He signed a contract with Mutual for $670,000 per year -an unheard of amount of money at the age of 26 that shocked the public when made public in the press.Eventually he built his own studio off Sunset Boulevard and formed United Artists with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D.W. Griffith.

Filming for The Kid began in 1919 and was released 1924 to instant success being screened in over 50 countries around the world. His next major film was The Gold Rush that was inspired by the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush and the Donner Party. The film was widely popular and grossed one of the highest profits of the silent era, $5 million in profits. Chaplin always considered it his best film. Amidst scandals in the press about his infidelity and failed marriages, Chaplin produced The Circusand City Lights -another classic film featuring his famous character, The Tramp.

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With the advent of Talkies, Chaplin grew nervous that his films were becoming a novelty of the old age rather than a contemporary phenomenon. He then made Modern Times and with fading popularity in the U.S. due to numerous scandals and public attitudes toward his political stand against nationalism caused many to compare Chaplin to Hitler, thus he made The Great Dictator -a satire of Hitler and Fascism receiving five Oscar nominations.

Chaplin produced Monsieur Verdoux that caused his reputation to be intricately linked to communism. He was booed at the premiere of the film as it severely criticized capitalism and he was known for involvement in left-wing activities. He was investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee and he was banned from the United States for his Communist sympathies. However, this was not before he made one final film entitled Limelight about a fading vaudeville star (in the film he worked alongside Buster Keaton in one scene that is famous as the only one in which the two worked together).

He retired to Switzerland where he re-edited many of his old films and published his memoirs as he regained popularity. Chaplin returned briefly to the United States to accept an honorary Academy Award in 1972 and shortly thereafter he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.

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With the advent of sound film, Chaplin played the cello and composed scores for all of his films.

With declining health, Charlie Chaplin suffered a stroke in his sleep and died in 1977. In 1978, two Eastern European immigrants robbed his coffin and tried to extort money from the Chaplin family but they were caught after a massive police investigation.

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His most notable films include:

The Kid (1924)

The Gold Rush (1925)

City Lights (1931)

Modern Times (1936)

The Great Dictator (1940)

Limelight (1952)

Broken Blossoms (1919) Review

8/7/14

Broken Blossoms (1919) Director: D. W. Griffith (David Wark Griffith)

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★★★★★

Broken Blossoms is a charming picture for its innocence and simplicity, and it is also meticulously well crafted with powerful cinematography. Broken Blossoms is by far my favorite of D.W. Griffith’s films, though it is unfortunately often overlooked in favor of his much larger scale and more controversial films. There is surely room to criticize Broken Blossoms for its use of racial stereotypes in helping to fan the flames of the early 20th century “yellow peril.”

Entitled Broken Blossoms: The Yellow Man and The Girl, the film is an impassioned tragedy and a masterpiece of the silent era. It stands in contrast to Griffith’s other massive epics, such as The Birth of a Nation (1915) or Intolerance (1916). Broken Blossoms is a gentler and more sensitive film. It is sentimental and melancholic. The story was adopted from Thomas Burke’s short story entitled “The Chink and the Child” taken from his book, Limehouse Nights. The movie was filmed almost entirely on two small indoor sets to capture the delicate and intimate nature of the film, as instructed by Henrick Sartov, the cinematographer. In total, it was shot in less than three weeks, but despite its quick filming schedule the film was a box office success. It was distributed by United Artists.

The film stars Lillian Gish (as Lucy, or the Girl), Richard Barthelmess (The Yellow Man) who played the character in “yellow face,” and Donald Crisp (Battling Burrows) who also played General Ulysses S. Grant in The Birth of a Nation and worked as an assistant to D.W. Griffith for many years before becoming a film director on his own.

The film opens with the tinted blue image of a ship arriving in a harbor and the title reads:

“It is a tale of temple bells, sounding at sunset before the image of Buddha; it is a tale of love and lovers; it is a tale of tears.

We may believe there are no Battling Burrows, striking the helpless with brutal whip – but do we not ourselves use the whip of unkind words and deeds? So, perhaps, Battling may even carry a message of warning.”

It begins in a port town in China where a young Chinese man (The Yellow Man) is contemplating a journey while receiving advice from a Buddhist priest. He witnesses several Western sailors fighting outside and decides he will go to England to be a Buddhist missionary, to “take a glorious message of peace to the barbarous Anglo-Saxons, sons of turmoil and strife.” There are two scenes of a Buddhist monk ringing a bell.

He boards a ship for the Limehouse district of London, a foggy slum of the city. He lives there for years working at the Cheng Huan shop selling Chinese trinkets. He spends his years smoking opium at the “scarlet house of sin” after becoming disillusioned with his idealistic cause. The next title reads: “In this scarlet house of sin, does he ever hear the temple bells? There are no more scenes of the bell ringing.

We meet the illegitimate daughter of Battling Burrows, Lucy, who is badly beaten after Battling Burrows’s manager gets angry at him for drinking. She receives advice from a group of some ‘women of the street’ who tell her not to get married but to sell her body. After her father beats her she pitifully moves her fingers over her mouth to force a smile, as he requests.

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Later, the Yellow Man meets two men, both Anglican clergymen, and one is preparing to travel to China to “Convert the heathen.” They hand the Yellow Man a book entitled “Hell.” Lucy goes out shopping and the Yellow Man spots her and notes her beauty. She is also followed by a man called “Evil Eye”. She tries to purchase a single flower in exchange for some tin foil from a shop keeper, but she is denied. She grows concerned as she is cornered by Evil Eye, but the Yellow Man rescues her.

Lucy returns home but her angry father beats her again until she passes out. When she awakens, she wanders down to the dock and collapses on the floor of the Yellow Man’s shop. He carries her upstairs and lavishly takes care of her and allows her to sleep (this extended scene lasts for a bulk of the film). Meanwhile, Burrows is fighting in the ring. One of his associates at the ring goes to the Yellow Man’s shop and the Yellow Man must leave to pick up his request, but the associate overhears something break upstairs, a jar of flowers dropped by Lucy. So he quietly goes upstairs as the Spying One, and spots her. Laughing, he leaves to go tell Battling Burrows. Burrows comes to the shop and ruins the whole room in a fury while the Yellow Man is out picking up flowers for Lucy.

They return home and he begins to beat her but she escapes into the closet for the famous scene, which even stunned Griffith during the filming. The Yellow Man races to her house but he is too late as Burrows has axed his way into the closet and beats her to death. The Yellow Man finds her dead on the bed and Burrows emerges as they stare each other down until Burrows tries to grab his axe but The Yellow Man shoots him several times and takes the body of Lucy back to his room in his shop. In Burk’s short story, Cheng Huan (The Yellow Man) puts a poisonous snake in Burrows bed to kill him.

The film closes as the Yellow Man lights a candle and says a Buddhist prayer before a small alter. He rings a small bell once, says goodbye to his White Blossom, and then dramatically stabs himself beside the dead body of Lucy just before the police show up to arrest him. Two scenes of the Buddhist bell ringing and the ship entering the harbor are shown, just as in the beginning of the film.

Lillian Gish later claimed theatres that premiered the film in New York were all decorated with ornate draperies, flowers, moon lanterns, and beautiful Chinese artwork. However, on a darker note, the scenes of child abuse in the film disgusted many critics, including Griffith during the filming, and it ultimately drew many away from the film. Broken Blossoms was released during a period of great skepticism against Chinese immigrants, known as the “Yellow Peril” and has since been criticized for its portrayal of Asians. Similar prejudiced themes can be found in another early classic film, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Cheat.