Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Essays, Silent Cinema

Essay: ‘The General’

This essay was originally written for the Silent Fall 2014 program presented by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival on September 20, 2014

‘The General’

No silent moviemaker ever engaged with the machinery of modern life as resourcefully as Buster Keaton did. From One Week (1920), his debut as a solo director after his apprenticeship with Fatty Arbuckle, to The Cameraman (1928), his final masterpiece, Keaton routinely sparred with the mechanized world. He could be confounded in his early shorts—sometimes modern conveniences got the best of him—but as Keaton moved into feature films and matured as a filmmaker, his characters persevered in the struggle, thanks to a combination of curiosity, commitment, and ingenuity. Whereas Chaplin waged war against the machines with underdog defiance, Keaton mastered the magnificent marvels of modern engineering to triumph over seemingly insurmountable odds. In The Navigator (1924), Keaton tamed an abandoned luxury liner and emerged with one of the biggest hits of his career. After making three features of a more modest scope, The General (1926) marked his return to filmmaking on an ambitious scale. Built around a majestic prop that becomes a character in its own right—a locomotive steam engine—it is still filled with intimate moments. It is a grand achievement.

The story of The General comes from a chapter of Civil War history, a true tale of Union spies who infiltrated the South, stole a passenger train in Georgia, and drove it north pursued by Southern conductors who eventually captured the raiders. According to Keaton, Clyde Bruckman, his reliable collaborator and gag man, handed him William A. Pittenger’s account of the incident as a potential project. Keaton streamlined the story to a deceptively simple structure of two mirrored chases—one north to recapture the stolen engine and another back south—as well as added a love interest and a kidnapping to make the rescue personal. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, he took on the perspective of the South.

Continue reading at San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Seattle Screens

Seattle Screens: Buster!

As much as I’ve enjoyed trying put together a weekly film page that looks for what’s interesting rather than what’s getting the biggest promotion, commitments have forced me to scale back contribution. So I’ll continue to offer a few notes and point you in the direction of other local coverage, but hopefully I can introduce you to some events you might not have known about.

Buster Keaton in ‘Steamboat Bill Jr.’

Into the Vaults: Celebrating the Library of Congress screens 10 classic films on archival 35mm prints over four days at The Uptown and the SIFF Film Center. Kicking off the series on Thursday, July 26, at The Uptown, are a pair of silent Buster Keaton classics with live accompaniment by Donald Sosin (a long time SIFF regular at festival silent screenings). Seven Chances (1925) and Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928) are absolutely delightful silent comedies from my favorite silent comic of them all and they don’t come around on the big screen very often. I reviewed Seven Chances for Turner Classic Movies when it debuted on Blu-ray and Steamboat Bill, Jr. just may be my favorite of his film. I’m charmed by the heart and soul of it. Keaton transforms from a foppish college dandy into a mechanical genius with a Rube Goldberg bent while battling the elements in the funniest hurricane scene ever put to film.  The series moves to the Film Center for the final three days. Full schedule at SIFF Cinema here.


Apart from The Dark Knight Rises, which apparently is such a sacred text that negative reviews are treated as offenses against the faith by some, a couple of festival films return for a regular run.

Trishna, featured at SIFF 2012, is Michael Winterbottom’s take on “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” relocated to India, with Frida Pinto in the title role. John Hartl at The Seattle Times: “Winterbottom has taken a boldly feminist approach to the story of a tragic heroine whose inherent intelligence and sense of fate is misunderstood.” Opens at the Harvard Exit.

And The Well-Digger’s Daughter, which played the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema series in March, is Daniel Auteuil’s adaptation of Marcel Pagnol’s novel, and a return of sorts to the author who helped kick off his career via the films Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring. Richard Jameson reviewed the film back in March for Straight Shooting: “The tale is both elemental and rich, and in addition to giving a masterclass in screen acting as a patriarch at most one generation removed from peasantry, Auteuil is generous with opportunities for his fellow players….” Opens at the Varsity in the U-District.

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Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD

DVD/Blu-ray: ‘Seven Chances’

Seven Chances (1925), Buster Keaton’s fifth feature as a director, is a rare Keaton film based directly on another property, in this case a David Belasco stage play by Roi Cooper Megrue. But it’s safe to say that Keaton transformed the material into his own brand of humor: from stage farce to snappy cinematic slapstick, with Buster turning every verbal jokes into visual gags.

'Seven Chances': Buster and the brides

The script is built on the kind of impossible contrivances that have been driving comedies for centuries. Keaton is James Shannon, a meek, sincere young lawyer too timid to ask his girl (Ruth Dwyer) for her hand, a situation made abundantly clear in a prologue that takes his courtship through the seasons. Then, just as he and his partner are in a serious (but only vaguely explained) financial bind, he’s informed that his rich uncle died (as the cliché goes) and he’s to inherit $7 million. The catch: he has to marry by 7 o’clock on his 27th birthday. I’ll give you seven guesses as to what day on which this all occurs (hint: it’s the afternoon of his 27th birthday). And, wouldn’t you, after all that procrastinating, he trips over his non-proposal and ends up at the country club, where his business partner identifies the seven girls his know as James’ “seven chances.”

For all the sevens in this script, Keaton tosses the number aside as he builds momentum and James’ shyness and social insecurity is overcome with each rejection, steeling him to become more brazen with each proposal. Before the sequence is over, he’s asked every single girl in the place (including an unbilled, not-yet-famous Jean Arthur as the club receptionist; keep an eye out for the one who waves the ring on her finger in front of his face) and heads out to try his luck on the street.

This isn’t the kind of pratfall slapstick or creative tangle with technology that we associate with Keaton but a kind of comic dance where he slides from partner to partner, making his pitch, taking each rebuff in stride and moving to the next. Some of these bits are deliciously choreographed steps, others born of Keaton’s trademark earnest haplessness, overcoming his initial shyness and reticence and fear of humiliation as he soldiers on through variations on a theme. The purpose of the exercise is practically forgotten as James takes on the act of proposing itself as the challenge. Keaton the director pushes him into crazier situations and more brazen propositions and Keaton the screen performer meets them all with comic grace.

Continue reading on Turner Classic Movies

Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews

Silent Nights: Keaton and DeMille – DVDs of the Week

Chicago (1927) (Flicker Alley)

This is the first screen incarnation of the story of jazz baby murderess Roxie Hart, first created in a play by former crime reporter Maurine Watkins that hit Broadway in 1926. Ginger Rogers played her in the William Wellman-directed Roxie Hart, which took the sex and cynicism right out of it, and of course it was turned into the Broadway musical that was brought to the screen in the 2002 Oscar winner. This version, produced (and in part directed) by Cecil B. DeMille, had been all but forgotten in the meantime, at least until a print was found in Cecil B. DeMille’s private collection, but even after select festival showings it’s still largely unknown. Hopefully this Flicker Alley DVD release will help take care of that.

Phyllis Haver: Nobody jilts Roxie Hart
Phyllis Haver: Nobody jilts Roxie Hart

Former Mack Sennett Bathing Beauty Phyllis Haver is Roxie, the bleached blond jazz baby of an unfaithful wife who plugs her wealthy lover (Eugene Palette) and tells her blindly adoring hubby Amos (Victor Varconi, an all-American type in the Joel McCrea mode) that it was burglar. Unlike future incarnations, this Amos is no sap, merely deluded by love, but his illusions are quickly shattered when he recognizes the dead man and finds one of her garters in his pocket. And as the press turns it into a front page scandal turned salacious soap opera, with Roxie as the willing star, the femme fatale playing the victimized innocent with all the subtlety of a second rate stage diva playing Victorian melodrama, Amos is the hero of the piece if only for his loyalty and sacrifice. Everyone else—from Roxie to the press to the assistant D.A.—simply uses the murder for their own notoriety with mercenary focus.

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