Friday, 14 August 2009

The General

1927 - Dir.: Buster Keaton & Clyde Brookman
Shown at The FeckenOdeon on 28th February, 2004
and to an open air audience on 26th June, 2007 at The Square, Feckenham

Both performances accompanied on the piano by Ian Room

"The General" was made in 1927, the year before the talkies transformed the cinema world. Filled with hilarious sight gags and perfectly timed stunt work, this Civil War chase comedy was written and directed by Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman, and filmed with a huge budget for its time ($400,000). The scale and direction of the movie was revolutionary, and those who haven't seen it before will be surprised at the skilful choreography of the action. The superb cinematography compliments the pace of the direction as Keaton cleverly builds up the scale of the stunts. These culminate in increasingly impressive train-based acrobatics as he dodges the fiendish attempts by the Union men to derail him. As with any good blockbuster, Keaton saves the best for last with a climax involving a spectacular train crash over a burning bridge. Staged for real, the reputed $42,000 cost of that single shot was unheard of in those days, and it's just as impressive today as it was then. It is in fact reckoned to be the single most expensive shot of the entire silent movie era. The locomotive itself remained in the river until WWII, when it was salvaged for scrap iron.
Born in 1897, the same year as the cinema, Buster Keaton grew up in a vaudeville family. He started in films with Fatty Arbuckle in 1917 and directed his first shorts in 1920. In less than a decade, from 1920 to 1928, he created a body of work that stands beside Chaplin's (some would say above it), and he did it with fewer resources because he was never as popular or well-funded as the Little Tramp. When the talkies came in, he made an ill-advised deal with MGM that ended his artistic independence. Largely forgotten by the 1940s, he was reduced to doing a live half-hour TV show in Los Angeles. He reappeared on the big screen in Samuel Beckett's "Film" (1965), and this brought him back into the public eye. A retrospective at Venice shortly before his death in 1966 confirmed his "rehabilitation" and acknowledged his enormous contribution to the technique and art of the cinema.

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