29 July 2013

Shhh! It's a Silent Movie Weekend

Any weekend that is in part spent watching three films that one has never previously seen and that one ends up liking is a weekend well spent. So it was for me this past weekend. Coincidentally all three films were from the silent era. Here's a brief reaction to this silent trio.

I don't know about the rest of y'all but I can be pretty darn stupid. Examples of said stupidity abound (for a complete list check with my wife). One example of this brainlessness is my stubborn and inexplicable refusal to watch a particular film without being able to (shall we say) show just cause. Case in point until Friday night: The General (1926) the much revered silent from Buster Keaton. I didn't know what I was missing. I hate comparisons between Keaton Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin. Even the late great Roger Ebert had to muddle his review of The General by contrasting Keaton and Chaplin. They were all three geniuses and let's just leave it at that. I may like one better then the others and you may like another and Hank over there (Heya Hank!) may like the third. Big deal.

The General is a comedy but that's selling it short. It is also a ripping good adventure yarn with some pretty dad burn good Civil War battle scenes that includes a real train falling off a real bridge into a real river. No special effects needed. It's even a love story. Oh yes and its based on actual events.  Keaton is the stone faced hero of the story pursing the eponymous train and the woman he loves and -- hardly a spoiler -- succeeding through pluck and luck and fortitude. The movie is a ballet of coordinated movements in which Keaton performs his own stunts literally defying death.

This is as engaging a film as you'll ever see. Following Keaton the train engineer wooing his girl being rejected from the Southern Army as the Civil War begins (he's too valuable running the train) seeing his train stolen by Union spies and chasing it down and his girl who's mixed up in the whole mess and becoming a most unlikely hero. Don't be a numbskull like me. See The General before you get to my ripe old age and if you've seen it already watch the durn thing again.

Saturday night the missus and I repaired to the Pacific Film Archives for another in their series of Raoul Walsh films. This time it was What Price Glory (1926) which I've been wanting to see for decades. It was worth the wait. This is yet another World War I film that makes a very strong argument about wo things: the lads who fought -- especially those who died -- were heroes and war is a really stupid way of deciding anything. Unfortunately as a culture we are much better at remembering the first half of that lesson than we are at remembering the second.

At the center of WPG are two rival U.S. soldiers (Victor McLaglen and Edmund Lowe) who start the story as sergeants with one raising to lieutenant. Their chief form of rivalry is over women. Actually they are usually less rivals and more combatants. It usually ends up being good clean soldierly fun with haymakers thrown and coarse words exchanged and all forgotten when its time to do battle against the common foe. Most of the story is set in a the quintessential WWI French village which is where the men are stationed when not fighting the Huns. The Mexican born Delores Del Rio played the French miss whose affections they fought over. There are of course other complimentary characters but none are more piquant than the young sensitive momma's boy whose fate seems obvious from the start. When the inevitable happens it is no less touching.

The battle scenes in WPG are incredible. People marvel at CGI enhanced war scenes of today but the lack of color and blood aside I challenge any filmmaker today to top what Walsh did nearly 90 years ago.

Sunday afternoon I settled into to watch The Iron Horse (1924) an early Western from the master himself John Ford. This is the epic telling of the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. George Bancroft -- best know for his starring role in Sunrise (1927) -- is the hero who faces villainous rivals in his efforts to both complete the railroad in an expeditious fashion and to get the girl. There is action aplenty much provided in battle scenes with those pesky Indians. To be fair many of the "hostiles" are inspired by evil whites and one tribe of natives are heroes. Ford was not nearly as harsh to Native Americans as some have mistakenly believed (I'm talking to you Tarantino). After the terrific films I'd seen the previous two days The Iron Horse paled in comparison but it it a worthy entry in the Western film canon and is an engaging if sometimes schmaltzy film with all too starkly drawn bad guys. But it also serves as a nice preview of what was to come from Ford. The vast majority of the film is outdoors and as always Ford did the landscape justice. The Iron Horse shows that Ford's eye for the big scene and scenery came early in his amazing career.

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