Although I’ve written for Berkeleyside since the site launched in 2009, I haven’t spent much time reviewing silent films. Makes sense, I suppose, since the focus of my column has usually been on recent or new releases, but also unfortunate: despite losing about 70% of silent features (and probably a higher percentage of shorts) to Because of fire, decay, and the elements, there’s plenty to enjoy for those curious enough to take the plunge.
This Thursday, September 29 is a rare opportunity for Americans to discover silent cinema on the big screen. This is national silent film dayand Rialto Elmwood Cinemas participates by screening one of the greatest comedies ever made (silent Where sound!) and an unforgettable and visually striking documentary.
When Buster Keaton The general (screening at 3:15 p.m. and 7 p.m.) created at the beginning of 1927, silent cinema was at its artistic peak. Were gone a long time Edison’s Black Mariastatic shots of cramped one-room sets, overly wordy intertitles explaining everything you’re about to see, and production company brands printed on landscape (a bizarre practice that thankfully ended when copyright law changed).
The general provided an opportunity for Keaton and co-director (and longtime Keaton collaborator) Clyde Bruckman to go all out. Not only did they travel to the small town of Cottage Grove, Oregon to shoot in a majestic setting, but they incorporated real rolling stock into the film; even by 1920s standards it was a lavish production – and you can still see every penny on screen.
Buster stars as Johnnie Gray, a locomotive engineer driving the Western and Atlantic Flier through the pine woods of Georgia (well, Oregon) in the days leading up to the interstate war. Buster loves only two things – his engine and his sweetheart Annabelle Lee (Marian Mack) – but when Fort Sumter comes under attack, he’s willing to enlist and leave them both behind to defend the honor of the South.
The recruiting office, however, rejects him: Johnnie is more useful as a railroad engineer than an infantryman. Rejected by the Rebel Army – and by Annabelle, who declares she won’t speak to him again until she sees him in uniform – our stone-faced hero is forced to keep riding the tracks until that he might have the opportunity to foil a Union plot against the Confederacy. jumpscares.
Shot on a huge budget (it was rumored to drop somewhere north of $750,000, a whopping sum at the time), The general was not a box office success and cost Keaton his artistic independence. Nevertheless – and despite his disconcerting embrace of Confederate mythology – the film is now widely considered a classic, and with its mix of remarkable location photography and impressive special effects, it’s easy to see why. Add to that the comedic timing, inventiveness and daring of Keaton – in my opinion, the king of silent comedy – and it’s an essential viewing experience.
I have not seen South: Ernest Shackleton and the Endurance Expedition (showing at 1:15 p.m. and Thursday at 5 p.m.) for many years, but I have never forgotten his incredible imagery. It’s a truly stunning film, shot throughout the 1914-16 expedition by Shackleton’s fellow adventurer Frank Hurley, and a more than worthy accompaniment. The general on this special day.