(Hoopla Streaming, October 2018) When I consciously decided to explore older movies, I semi-arbitrarily set 1920 as my limit—I wouldn’t actively seek out any movie earlier than the 1920s, and even that was going a bit past my preferences given my lack of enthusiasm for silent cinema. But there are a few silent movie stars that I really, really like and Buster Keaton is high on that list, even beating out Charlie Chaplin. Films like Sherlock Jr. illustrate why some silent 1920s are well worth watching even today. The first half of the film is a bit messy, as a young man working as a movie theatre usher daydreams about being an ultracompetent detective. It’s a set-up for various gags and the slow accumulation of the plot’s bare-bones: The girl, her unpleasant suitor and the protagonist’s rich imagination. But then the second half of Sherlock Jr. comes by, and all the brakes come loose. Suddenly, it’s not just a great pool-table sequence; it’s a wildly imaginative trip through cinema by a hero entering the movie screen and it’s a terrific chase sequence that has us both laughing and grabbing our armrests. The special effects are still amazing, and so is the dreamlike logic of the film’s second half, abandoning strict realism for sight gags and an imaginative build-up taking advantage of movie magic and, crucially, the power of editing. The film is around 50 minutes long, and it sometimes feels even faster thanks to the pace of the editing. Keaton suffered for this film (not only was he severely injured on-set, but he also experienced the failure of the film’s then-modest commercial and critical success) but the results more than speak for themselves. Sherlock Jr. is still a wild ride and a literal joy to watch.
(On TV, October 2018) One of the pleasures of going deep in cinema history is finally encountering the progenitor of a particular gag. So it is that Steamboat Bill, Jr. is where the original classic “building façade fall on a person who survives unscathed thanks to an open window” joke comes from. It happens late in the film, in the middle of a particularly frantic sequence in which a small town is destroyed by a cyclone. That final act is something spectacular, with Keaton (who also helped write and direct the film) using all the means at his disposal for a still-inventive number of comic gags and spectacular sequences set in the heart of a catastrophe. Much of Steamboat Bill, Jr. until that point is a fairly dull affair with a plot about a disappointing son, a steamboat-crossed romance and small-town competition. Then the cyclone lands and suddenly the film finds its way, producing one gag after another. The film is now freely available from its Wikipedia page in decent quality.
(On TV, June 2018) Never ask me to choose between Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, because you’re going to see the Tramp being thrown overboard. Chaplin’s highs are higher (The Great Dictator and Modern Times outclass nearly everything that Keaton has done), but for a consistent laugh-for-laugh basis, Keaton is the one I prefer. This is a weird thing to talk about in discussing The General, because compared to many of Keaton’s features (say, Steamboat Bill Jr. and Sherlock Jr.), it’s a far less funny film: the jokes aren’t that prevalent, and Keaton gets less to do on a physical comedy basis. But The General proves that Keaton could deliver a sustained feature-length picture that held together as a story rather than a series of gags: Here we have a Civil-War-era train engineer who, through a set of circumstances, finds himself chasing another train across enemy lines to retrieve his beloved, and then being chased back by another train. The film’s standout sequence is a shot in which an actual multi-ton train crashes down a river when it tries crossing a burning bridge—and it was shot for real, with no miniatures whatsoever. Recognized as the single most expensive silent movie shot (costing roughly half a million in today’s dollars), it’s a spectacular piece of cinema even ninety-some years later. The film itself isn’t as spectacular, but the hunter/hunted structure works well (and doesn’t have any later imitators) and there is a very funny joke late in the film when the rescued damsel decides to be picky about which bit of wood to put in the train furnace. The General is still well worth a look—but do try to find a high-quality version of the film in order to enjoy the details of the picture.