Next Thursday we will be back at the charming Armley Mills’ Palace Picturehouse with a true cinema classic – The General (1926). Accompanying the feature presentation with be a selection of short films and homemade Pecan pie, plus tea and coffee, courtesy of Minicine team newbie, Abi.
Speaking of new team members, here Holly Thackeray previews this month’s feature and discusses the legacy of silent cinema. We hope you enjoy:
An endearing mix of gentle humour, overt slapstick and physical comedy, The General encompasses all the charm of 1920’s silent movies, with charismatic actor/director/stuntman and star Buster Keaton sharing his role as the films protagonist with his prized engine, the train of the title.
One of the beginning inter-titles aptly outlines the central premise of the film “There were two loves in his life. His engine, and-“. Certainly, despite being confined to the comedy-action/adventure shelves of the silent film aisle, The General can also stake a claim to belonging to the romantic comedy genre: the love story of a man…and his train.
Set against the backdrop of the American Civil War, Buster Keaton’s sad-eyed, lovable Johnnie Gray is more than content in his role as train driver and engineer, returning home to court his slightly fickle girlfriend, when hostilities suddenly break out. With his cosy plans thwarted by a pesky outbreak of war, a hero-worshipping kiss from Annabelle Lee, and some timely coward-shaming from her male relatives, inspires Johnnie on a gallant, if haphazard, dash to be first in line to enlist in the army. Unbeknownst to the gloriously sulky and rather put-out protagonist (“If you lose this war don’t blame me”), his rejection is due to his value as an engineer, rather than any slight on his potential capabilities as a soldier (although this assumption later proves to be well founded as the awkward hero fumbles and tumbles his way through the conflict). Shunned by Annabelle Lee and her family, Johnnie’s only remaining faithful companion is the trusty General; until fate intervenes in the form of a solicitous, tent dwelling, handle-bar moustached Unionist General and his Southern spy, who decide the only way to secure victory is to abscond with The General, complete with ex-girlfriend trapped on board, as Johnnie, oblivious, washes his hands nearby.
It is no spoiler to reveal that the majority of the films one hour and ten minutes consist of the hapless lead’s jaunt into enemy territory to rescue his beloved (train), epitomising, or perhaps defining, the accidental hero trope. The result is an enthralling, live action, cat and mouse chase between Johnnie and the Unionist troops, as train and driver spend the first half of the film dodging a series of farcical obstacles and situations, a sequence almost identically reversed in the second part as Jonnie springs his cherished engine from the Unionist’s grasps. With the plot taking place almost solely on moving trains, the action-comedy almost feels like one constant scene, culminating in a climax celebrated for being the most expensive stunt in silent cinema history.
If there is an underlying message in the film, sandwiched underneath the layers of slapstick and misadventure, as Johnnie stumbles into a conflict he had tried so desperately and comically to join, it is that events on both a grand and personal scale are always ultimately out of our control; but in Keaton’s optimistic narrative at least, they always turn out for the best.
An antidote to the modern, garish, and stage managed action film, The General boasts realistic stunts and action scenes (all impressively performed by Buster himself), imbuing the farcical plot with a sense of authenticity, which, combined with Keaton’s slightly awkward, everyman persona, lends the film a genuine warmth and sincerity. Misdirected cannons, ex-girlfriend’s hidden in sacks and cases of mistaken uniform abound, with great attention to detail, exhibiting how sometimes the simplest comedy can still be the most enduring and intelligent.
Adding to the twenties experience and mirroring the qualities of this quirky piece of cinema, Armley Mills Industrial Museum’s 1920s style picture house provides an authentic setting for this classic film, offering the chance for an immersive few hours spent in an intimate and unique venue.
Often viewed as the pinnacle of achievement in American silent film-making, it is also fitting that The General was one of the art forms last big hurrahs, marking the beginning of the end. Indeed, a year after The General was released to a cold shouldered reception from critics and audiences alike, American cinemas first “talkie”, The Jazz Singer (1927), combining sound with aspects of silent film, opened in theatres to great rapture. Acting as the catalyst for the invasion of the “talkies”, filming with sound had a drastic effect on the Hollywood landscape, both in front of and behind the scenes; resulting in many main-stays of the silent screen dropping off the face of cinema, as well as many out of work inter-title writers and musicians.
The famous bowler hat- topped face most synonymous with the success of silent film, Charlie Chapman, summed up the mood of silent cinema toward this intrusion of sound, insisting “Talkies are ruining the great beauty of silence”, before promptly relenting on his stance and making his own “talkie”- a reflection of the industry’s acceptance of defeat in the face of technological progress. However, despite audience’s seemingly abrupt disposal of silent cinema, it has always been able to offer an intensely visual form of expression that film with sound or 3D could never quite match. Now, with the revival of interest in silent style movies in recent years, including the likes of the successful La Antena (2007) and the Oscar-winning The Artist (2012), revisiting the classics that preceded and inspired them provides an intriguing opportunity to trace silent cinema back to its roots, as well as illuminating the lasting influence of classic comedians and filmmakers such as Buster Keaton on contemporary film in all its forms.
The screening takes place on Thursday 26th September from 7PM (doors 6.40PM) and tickets can still be purchased form our online box office.
See you there!