Though I’ve been writing for Berkeleyside since the site first launched in 2009, I haven’t spent much time reviewing silent films. Logical, I suppose, as the focus of my column has generally been on recent or new releases, but also unfortunate: Despite the loss of approximately 70% of silent features (and likely a higher percentage of shorts) to fire, decay and the elements, there are riches aplenty to appreciate for those curious enough to take the plunge.
This Thursday, Sept. 29, is a rare opportunity for Americans to experience silent film on the big screen. It’s National Silent Movie Day, and Rialto Cinemas Elmwood is participating by screening one of the greatest comedies ever made (silent or sound!) and an unforgettable and visually arresting documentary.
By the time Buster Keaton’s The General (screening at 3:15 p.m. and 7 p.m.) premiered in early 1927, silent film was at its artistic apex. Long gone were Edison’s Black Maria, static shots of cramped one-room sets, overly verbose inter-titles explaining everything you’re about to see, and production company trademarks imprinted onto scenery (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 pull out all the stops. Not only did they travel to the small town of Cottage Grove, Oregon, to shoot in suitably majestic surroundings, they incorporated real rolling stock into the film; even by the standards of the 1920s, this 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 piney woods of Georgia (well, Oregon) in the days leading up to the War Between the States. Buster loves only two things — his engine and his sweetheart Annabelle Lee (Marian Mack) — but when Fort Sumter is attacked, he’s ready to enlist and leave them both behind to defend the honor of the South.
The recruiting office, however, rejects him: Johnnie is of more use as a railroad engineer than he is a foot soldier. Rejected by the rebel Army — and by Annabelle, who declares she won’t talk to him again until she sees him in uniform — our stone-faced hero is compelled to keep riding the rails until an opportunity to foil a Union plot against the Confederacy arises.
Shot on a massive budget (rumored to fall somewhere north of $750,000, a huge amount at the time), The General was not a box office hit and cost Keaton his artistic independence. Nonetheless — and despite its discomfiting embrace of Confederate mythology — the film is now widely considered a classic, and with its blend of remarkable location photography and impressive special effects, it’s easy to understand why. Add in the comic timing, inventiveness, and daring of Keaton — in my opinion, the king of silent comedy — and it’s an essential viewing experience.
I haven’t seen South: Ernest Shackleton and the Endurance Expedition (screening at 1:15 p.m. and 5 p.m. Thursday) for many years, but I’ve never forgotten its incredible imagery. This is a truly breathtaking film, shot throughout the 1914-16 expedition by Shackleton’s fellow adventurer Frank Hurley, and more than worthy accompaniment for The General on this special day.