A silent film to “shout about”
Sunday, August 19th, 3pm at the Arlington Cinema House, San Francisco, CA
Today I watched my first silent film. Although they belong to the era of my great-grandmother, my parents have mentioned Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton and Laurel & Hardy with affection. It seems their films were often played on Tv in the past, but for my generation I had wondered if they were lost forever, or only appreciated by the vintage vinyl connoisseur crowd. So when the opportunity arose to see
“The General” starring Buster Keaton, I went along out of curiosity. Even more intriguing, it was to be shown in the style and environment it was intended for – one of the original theatres from the 1920’s, completely refurbished with a remastered copy of the film and authentic live music accompaniment.
As I walked into The Arlington Cinema past the ticket counter, the familiar thick smell of butter popcorn wafted into the dark movie house, feeling very contemporary. Rows of red velvet seats lined the way to the front of the stage where heavy red curtains masked the screen. The walls were decorated with trompe l’oeil – 3 dimensional effect paintings of balconies entwined with flowers, windows concealed with extravagant swags of fabric and a ceiling lit with stars. It felt as though we, the audience, had arrived on set. As the film began, the curtains parted and the organist, seated upon a platform, rose ceremoniously from the belly of the stage, whilst playing appropriately dramatic music. His job was to watch the screen above and shadow the characters movements, provide the roars of the engines, the train chases and inject comedy or tragedy as required.
“The General” was first screened in 1927 set during the American Civil War, about a hapless, southern railroad engineer coming up against Union soldiers. At the time of it’s release, the film was not well received by the public but has since been re-evaluated and is now considered by film critics, one of the most revered comedy movies ever made.
As the film opens, war has been declared between the North and the South and Johnny Gray (Keaton) runs to enlist to impress his love, Annabelle. However, he is turned down without knowing why, creating tension through dramatic irony — the audience is allowed to know but the hero is not. Annabelle, her brother and her father are stunned by his reluctance to serve and apparent lack of patriotism; “I don’t want you to speak to me again until you are in uniform” she announces on screen. The text is short and sweet, we now know the hero must prove himself; and so the story begins. Johnny, sad and embarrassed remains the engineer of the General (the locomotive) as men go off to war. One day the train is stolen by Union spies as it has stopped for dinner (no restaurant cars in those days!) When he realises that not only the train has been taken but Annabelle is on board and being held hostage, he immediately gives chase on foot, by bicycle (a ridiculous Penny farthing), by handcar — a pump action trolley and then with another locomotive, thanks to a series of traps laid by the Unionist soldiers. This is the comedy in an otherwise tragic situation of unrequited love. The crazy stunts, all performed by Keaton, stand up well even today — the Tom Cruise of his generation! As Johnny tries to free Annabelle he hears of an imminent surprise-attack by the North. He rescues Annabelle, steals a cargo train to warn the others and is chased by the Texas (another locomotive) as they try to escape. The Texas train falling into a gorge is the one of the most famous and expensive single shot scenes in movie history! It cost around $42,000 in 1926; in today’s money about $500,000.
This was my first time watching a silent film and surprisingly I found it pretty exhausting. Keeping your eyes peeled for the inter-titles — crucial printed storylines, edited into the midst of the action — made it impossible to switch on and off as you might in modern movies. Silent Movie turned out to be a misnomer — the films of that era were always accompanied by a live organist. The experience was invigorating, scooping you up and driving you along with the story, whilst mesmerised by the images playing before you. It was quite intense. I was shocked by the profound attention the film demanded. It was nothing like today’s films, the actors had to consider each movement for dramatic effect. The camera frequently pulling in close on the faces while they used their heavily made-up eyes to ‘emote’ on screen. The silence forcing the actors to achieve the impossible — to communicate the story through their facial expressions. Today, accompanied by dialogue, we would find this so cheesy and trite but over-the-top body language was crucial then.“The General” has opened my eyes to the prejudice I held against silent movies; and how I might even give black and white films a go now. I think it would be crude to compare silent films to modern cinema seeing as the technology was so limited and yet inventive enough to be impressive in it’s day and still convincing now. Although we assume current cinema is more sophisticated and therefore better, I think silent movies still have something to say (excuse the pun). The General is 1 hour 47 minutes long and I have to admit, I was entertained.
What more can you ask?
If you’re curious to see for yourself, here are the Guardians Top Ten Silent Films