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
Going into my first ever viewing of Metropolis did not come without a unique set of complications. Apparently, the film has been edited and re-edited and re-mastered six ways to Sunday. To make matters worse, the cut of the film that was released by UFA in Germany, at 116 minutes, was a truncated edit that removed a quarter of it's original running time, which was 153 minutes. Even today, a full 37 minutes missing scenes is a pretty drastic loss. The original cut was lost and then rediscovered over time, which of course allowed for attempts at the restoration of the film's original version. The latest restoration, the 2010 Complete Metropolis, had to work with damaged film reels, so in their place are intertitles that summarize the events of the damaged shots. Several of the restorations also feature updated soundtracks; chief among is Giorgio Moroder's version of the film, with an 80-minutes run time and a pop soundtrack heavy with modern music... Yikes.
For my own sanity, sad though it is, I decided to track down the truncated 1927 release so I can spare myself the jarring sensation of listening to the vocal stylings of Pat Benatar and Freddie Mercury alongside silent movie scenes. I also figured, after my traumatic experience with the unpleasant "restoration" The Golem, I owe it to myself to see what audiences saw in 1927, even if it wasn't the film that was intended. Unfortunately, no version of this film exists. Not really. The closest I came to the cut of the film that premiered in 1927 still included mentions of the missing footage. I thought I might find what I was looking for on Amazon Prime but instead I paid $2.99 to rent a movie that was free to watch on YouTube. Then again, the Amazon rental had much clearer picture and sound, so I suppose it was $2.99 well spent.
For those of you familiar with the film, I don't think you'll be surprised to hear that I have so much to say about this movie and, like most of the films on this list, it's clear to see why Metropolis made it to the top 25. The message of the opening scenes is clear: this eponymous city has a caste system that divides the ruling class and the working class. Above are the wealthy and carefree who frolic in the open air and enjoy a life completely devoid of suffering and hardship.... Below the feet of these privileged few is the city of workers, the laborers who keep this mechanical city running. Like machines themselves, they line up in perfect assembly line rows, wearing matching, filthy gray uniforms, their faces grimly identical. I was immediately reminded of H. G. Wells' The Time Machine and the stark contrast between the Eloi and the Morlocks. When I read up on the film afterwards, I wasn't at all surprised to learn screenwriter and novelist Harbou drew inspiration from Wells.
Although much of the science-fiction aspects of the films were somewhat corny, I suspected that only was because I can't help but compare the movie to more modern sci-fi. Imagine my surprise to learn that the film was panned it it's time. H. G. Wells even called it silly. I can see why. That being said, the film has a lot of heart (and yes, pun intended). The driving idea behind Metropolis is one that female lead Maria state in one of her early scenes: "The mediator between head and hands must be the heart." The analogy is clear; the ruling class represent the head while the working class represent the hands. Maria and the rest of the workers are awaiting a mediator, someone who can bridge the gap between the two worlds. Someone with compassion... Enter our male lead, Freder, the son of Jon Frederson, the mastermind of Metropolis.
Freder is a rather atypical male protagonist for the era, but I suppose he had to be to fulfill this role of mediator. His life of luxury and ease is interrupted when Maria arrives with dozens of worker children in tow. She is showing these children what life above the worker's underground city is like. Freder is touched by the sight of the children and very obviously in love with Maria (love at first sight is a common trend in 1920's cinema). Curiosity led Freder to the worker's city, where his eyes are opened and he takes the place of a worker, willing to walk a mile in the shoes of a laborer, something no one of his status has ever attempted or even considered. Freder is definitely the kind of leader I would follow and perhaps that's the point; he started out naive to the ways of the world, followed his heart (almost literally), found empathy for the plight and suffering of the workers, and transformed into a man of both worlds. He was the mediator Maria spoke of.
The imagery in this film is remarkable. When Maria tells the story of the Tower of Babel, the slavery allusion was powerful; when the false Maria wreaks havoc in the above-world, the male gaze is personified and representative of the debauchery of city life; the meeting between Maria and Freder in the catacombs is almost Shakespearean, but then aren't all stories of ill-fated lovers so? I will say this about 1920's cinema: watching women being chased by men and being burned at the stake gets really old really fast. But hey, I knew that going in and it doesn't ruin the enjoyment of films for me at this stage. In fact, despite the ridiculous things that happen to Maria through no fault of her own, I rather enjoyed her as a female protagonist. And at least Maria survives the burning at the stake this time!
All in all, the film deserves all the praise, even with the questionable deleted scenes. Most of them range from somewhat necessary to pretty dang necessary. I do think many of the deleted scenes provided some much needed context to what remained in the eventual cut. I think at some point in the future I'll watch the Complete Metropolis cut for comparison purposes. If I had any complaints about the film, I would only say that I wish we got more screen time with the "Machine Man" without Maria's face on it. I love her design, but credit where credit is due: Brigitte Helm, the actress who portrays both version of Maria as well as the one who wore the Machine Man costume, was nothing short of spectacular if a bit over-expressive (but again, it is the 1920's).
I'm sure there's much more I can say about this production (set design! special effects!), but sometimes the art speaks for itself. If you're one of the very tiny percentage of people who hasn't seen this film yet (like me up until a few hours before this posting) then definitely add it to your list (especially fans of Star Wars; you'll want to meet C-3PO's inspiration).
Next time, I'll be enjoying my final F. W. Murnau film, Sunrise, as well as my next Lon Chaney flick, the mystery-horror film London After Midnight. See you then!
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