So far, The General is the only overt comedy that I've seen out of the 1920's. I say "overt" because although Charlie Chaplin's The Kid was a comedy, it also had elements of drama that resulted in my watching the film with misty eyes. However, not a single tear was shed for The General... except maybe tears of laughter. And after some pretty serious dramas since The Thief of Bagdad, it felt good to just relax and laugh at Buster Keaton's tale of an accidental hero turned military lieutenant.
The film is a fictionalized account of true events, namely a military raid that transpired during the American Civil War and resulted in Confederate soldiers chasing the stolen locomotive called "The General" (hence the title of the film), first on foot and then on a series of locomotives. In the film, Buster Keaton is Johnnie Gray, The General's engineer, who chases after his train after Union soldiers take off with it along with Johnnie's sweetheart, Annabelle Lee. What follows is a series of mishaps and dumb luck close-calls that had me in stitches as Johnnie faces Union soldiers and their weapons, railway debris, a loose cannon (literally), thunderstorms, a very confused bear, and a very annoying bear trap. It was hysterical and I was completely in stitches.
There wasn't only screen-fun to be had, though. There's a few fun and interesting "behind-the-scenes" stories tied to the film, as well. For example, there's a scene where Annabelle Lee, played by Marion Mack, gets doused with water rather suddenly while she and Johnnie are refilling the train's reservoir. Apparently, Mack didn't know about this so the shock on her face in that scene is completely genuine. There's also a scene toward the end of the film where the locomotive called Texas falls into a river, taking an entire bridge with it. This was the single most expensive scene to shoot in 1920's and the engine used for that scene stayed in the river until World War II, when it was scraped for iron. Evidently, The General was Buster Keaton's favorite of his own films, and I can see why; the outdoor shooting (which took place predominately in Oregon), the live locomotive engines (he tried to get the actual General engine from a museum in Chatanooga), and the adventurous nature of the film all makes this a larger-than-life production.
I have to admit that this is my first ever Buster Keaton flick, which I'm not ashamed to admit since the whole point of this challenge is to watch all (well, some) of the films I've never seen before. It's one thing to read about Keaton's physical comedy adjacent to his deadpan expression, but it's another thing altogether to experience it for one's self. The following clip is from early in the film, immediately after The General is commandeered by Union Soldiers
F. W. Murnau has already proven himself to be quite the visionary filmmaker so I went into this double feature very excited. I had a feeling I would very much enjoy these two films. I have a general idea of Faust (because anyone remotely literate has heard of Faust at some point or another, right?), but I had no background knowledge on Tartauffe. Well, the film is based on a 17th play of the same name, but screenwriter Carl Mayer cut out many of the secondary characters so that the film can focus on the triangle of action between husband and wife, Orgon and Elmire, and the eponymous Tartauffe. As the story goes, Tartauffe is a purported "holy man" that is actually an impostor manipulating Orgon. Tartauffe somehow convinces Orgon that his lavish lifestyle is sinful and he must give away his wealth, dismiss his staff, neglect his loving wife, and leave all of his worldly possessions to Tartauffe in his last will and testament (not suspicious at all). The rest of the family (which in the film is just Elmire and their remaining servant, Dorine) can see through Tartauffe's manipulation and Elmire becomes the object of Tartauffe's lecherous ways, though he initially resists in order to keep his con going. The story has a happy ending: Elmire and Dorine trick Tartauffe into revealing his true deceiving self behind closed doors (thanks to Elmire's hesitant seduction) but Orgon is watching through the keyhole and hears all. Tartauffe flees, but not before Orgon lands a few punches, and Elmire gets the love of her husband back.
The story of Elmire, Orgon, and Tartauffe is actually a-film-within-a-film; this movie uses a framing device to tell the story of Taratuffe and it's the first film I've seen from this decade to do such a thing. The framing story involves a similar story of deception; a housekeeper convinces the elderly man she cares for to leave her his fortune upon his death. The old man agrees because, for one, he refuses to put his grandson's name down because he "became an actor against my will," but also because he believes his housekeeper to be kind and loyal. However, this is dramatic irony since the audience sees clearly that the she's only nice to his face in a bid to get her name on the last will and testament. When the old man isn't looking, the housekeeper is visibly cruel and unkind. The actor grandson sees through the housekeeper and he disguises himself so he can show the housekeeper and his grandfather the movie Tartauffe. At the end of the film, he reveals himself and calls out the housekeeper, who we find out has been slowly poisoning the old man. I am reminded of Hamlet when the prince hosts a play that acts out a man murdering his brother in an attempt to reveals his uncle's treasonous murder of King Hamlet.
This framing device is a clever "life imitates art imitates life" meta message that I appreciate on several levels, and I also appreciate F. W. Murnau's penchant for happy but still somehow realistic endings. Also, and this may be a stretch, but I got a feminist vibe from both the Elmire and housekeeper character. They're foil characters, obviously, but the fact that Elmire saves her husband from the clutches of the obviously deceptive Tartauffe is pretty progressive, as is the use of a female character as an minor antagonist, which I haven't seen much of either. My millennial self is happy with both narrative choices.
The story behind the 1925 adaption of The Phantom of the Opera is far more interesting than the film itself. Although, I may not be saying that with total objectivity; I've long been a fan of the musical, both the 2004 film starring Gerard Butler and Emily Rossum as well as the Broadway production, which I was fortunate to experience once. I was immediately perturbed at the idea of a silent film based around a story that I associate with so much music, and I often found myself humming or full-on signing Andrew Lloyd Webber's songs during my viewing of the Lon Chaney flick. Of course, I kept the film on my list knowing that the story would be familiar and mostly unchanged, but the challenge here was to know whether the story is just as enjoyable without sound? And yes, yes it was. Although hardly my favorite of the 1920's silent movies so far (The Phantom Carriage and The Last Laugh are currently tied for that position), I was very impressed with the Paris Opera House replica and studio sets and, of course, The Man of a Thousand faces struck again. This is my second Lon Chaney film and the man is truly a master of disguise.
That being said, what captivated me more than Lon Chaney's horrible disfigured facade as Erik, the criminally insane ghost of the opera house with a crush on young ingenue Christine Daae, was the story of how this film even came to be. Then president of Universal Pictures Carl Laemmle was on a holiday in Paris where he met Gaston Leroux, who worked in the French film industry at the time. Laemmle commented to Leroux how much he admired the Paris Opera House and Leroux gave him a copy of his novel, The Phantom of the Opera. Laemmle read the novel in one night and immediately bought the rights to make a film out of Leroux's book. I love stories like that. Sharing your art with someone who then makes more art with it? This happened almost a century ago; it was a different time. You can't just send your manuscript to a Hollywood producer in the hopes that he'll love it so much he'll pay you to make a movie out of it... But, one can dream.
There are more interesting stories behind the making of The Phantom of the Opera, like Lon Chaney's tense relationship with director Rupert Julian which led Chaney to direct most of his own scenes, or the replacing of Julian with director Edward Sedgwick to re-shoot the bulk of the movie due to poor reviews and reactions to the film's original cut after Julian refused and left the project. The movie would be re-edited a third time, keeping some of the scenes removed from Julian's cut but keeping Sedgwick's ending in which the Phantom is seemingly killed by an angry mod led by the brother of one of his victims. I found this interesting because the later half of the film did show evidence of some wonky editing; at one point, I saw the Phantom perform the same menacing movement toward Christine, who was laying sprawled over the steps that led into the Phantom's lair. She had her arm poised protectively over her and she seemed to be pleading with the Phantom but no intertitles provided any context to this moment or why it was included thrice in the edit.
Much like The Hunchback of Notre Dame, this iteration of The Phantom of the Opera is at a disadvantage in that it's story was familiar and other, more modern adaptions (both of which are musical, and I'm a sucker for a good musical) would improve upon the limitations of the technology of the mid-1920's. On the other hand, both succeeded in the casting of Lon Chaney; his performance made both films quite enjoyable, and as lovely and talented as Gerard Butler and Tom Hulce are, Lon Chaney was an irreplaceable talent in both films.
To jump to a specific film's post, just click on the title below!