PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

Nary a Word: 'The Last Laugh' and 'The General'

Emil Jannings in The Last Laugh

The sound era added nothing thematically or tonally that wasn't already perfected in silent films.

Buster Keaton in The General

This is one of two silent classics recently reissued by Kino in two-disc versions. The other is Buster Keaton's The General (1926), a movie so universally celebrated as his greatest achievement that its reputation can roll over you like a steam engine. Key to its lore is that it wasn't so successful at the time, partly due to its enormous expense, and only since the Keaton revival of the 1950s has it become so highly regarded. This new Kino reissue quotes critic David Robinson on the package. "Every shot has the authenticity and the unassuming correct composition of a Matthew Brady Civil War photograph," he writes, adding that no other filmmaker caught the visual aspect of the Civil War (or at least Brady photographs) as Keaton did. Orson Welles makes a similar remark in his introduction to the movie from the early '70s PBS series The Silent Years, which is included as a bonus along with Gloria Swanson's intro from an early '60s series called Silents Please. Welles rhapsodizes about the film's beauty, declaring it "a hundred times more visually stunning than Gone with the Wind.

DVD: The General (The Ultimate 2-Disc Edition) Display Artist: Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman Director: Buster Keaton Director: Clyde Bruckman Film: The General (The Ultimate 2-Disc Edition) Cast: Buster Keaton, Marion Mack MPAA rating: Unrated First date: 1926 Distributor: Kino US DVD Release Date: 2008-11-11 Image: http://images.popmatters.com/film_art/b/bkeaton-general.jpg

But that doesn't sound hilarious, does it? That's one clue to why contemporary audiences were less impressed with it than, as the aliens told Woody Allen in Stardust Memories, with his earlier, funnier films -- or his later funnier ones. The General is part of a Keaton trend toward quite serious stories highlighted by Douglas Fairbanks-ian physicality, as seen in Our Hospitality (which I actually like better) or The Navigator (ditto) or Battling Butler (a close call). In fact, the most famous stunt in The General has nothing to do with Keaton except as its creator. It's the collapse of a train on a burning bridge, which was reported as the most expensive sequence ever filmed to that time. What does it mean that the most famous image in a Keaton film doesn't have Keaton in it? It's certainly an impressive shot every time you see it -- there's the train really falling -- but hardly a knee-slapper.

Then too, the whole set-up is an irritating play among wholly uninteresting characters. Keaton's Johnny is in love with a silly girl unworthy of him, and when the Civil War breaks out and her father and brother go off to enlist, she goads him to enlist too. So he rushes to be first in line at the enlistment office, where two officials decide he's already too valuable to the war effort as a railroad conductor and refuse to enlist him. But they simply shine him along without telling him why, leading to his extended scene of frustration as he assumes he's not good enough to be a soldier. When he leaves the office, he's seen by the father and brother who encourage him to get in line, and when he doesn't even answer them, they assume he's too chicken to enlist and they pass this misinformation along to their sister.

In other words, this story requires two colossal misapprehensions that could be solved if only anyone said anything to anybody. When Johnny finally tries to explain, she cuts him off with "Don't lie to me. And don't talk to me again until you're in uniform." Compared with this contrivance, the premise of Seven Chances, in which Buster has 24 hours to get married and inherit a fortune, is a model of common sense and rigorous cause-and-effect. But when people recall this film fondly, they skip right over that stuff and go directly to the exciting chase (actually two chases) that's loosely based on a real historical incident. (The Walt Disney film The Great Locomotive Chase tells a version of the same story from the Northern point of view.) And yes, this narrative is full of ingenious, breathless, well-choreographed ideas that make the film entertaining. I'm only stating here that if you're more impressed by the visuals of the chase or the Brady-esque compositions, you should be aware that several less ambitious Keaton movies are actually funnier and have more endearing characters, if that matters to you. Yet I admit that when I first saw this movie at a tender age, with that intro by Welles, I wasn't bothered by the frustration of the set-up or the thin romance, nor did I have other Keatons to compare it with. I accepted its simplicities and plugged right into the breathless fun. Childhood is an excellent time to be introduced to silent films. One accepts them as a world unto itself, like animation or musicals. Kino is our most vigilant and tireless guide to that era. This two-disc set includes three scores, a tour of filming locations, a history and look at the actual General engine, some brief behind-the-scenes footage, and a montage of Keaton's train gags. The print is declared to be mastered in HD from a 35mm archive print struck from the negative, and it looks very good. Kino has also recently released Harry Langdon: Three's a Crowd and The Chaser, an important and welcome contribution to the ongoing excavation of this comedian's neglected corpus, about which we've written in these pages before. Langdon directed himself in these commercial disappointments of 1927-28. On the surface, and even under it, Three's a Crowd is a sad, pathetic tale of a man-child for whom nothing will work out, a schlemiel without even the bittersweet insouciance of a Chaplin. In the dead of winter, he lives in an eyrie at the top of an impossibly long, narrow flight of stairs. As per Langdon's specialty, nothing definite happens for long stretches of film (and at least one dream sequence was unfortunately removed to make it shorter), but eventually he takes in a woman with no apparent husband as she's moments away from giving birth. Harry apparently intends to keep these strays as his new family. David Kalat's commentary vigorously defends this misunderstood film and explains how even the comical stunts, such as Langdon falling through his floor, are pervaded by fatalism. This is how Langdon expands the boundaries of comedy into things that aren't really funny -- not unlike Keaton, mark you, save that Keaton is an action hero while Langdon is a stasis hero, more acted upon than acting. The Chaser goes further, although it's full of more conventionally ridiculous comic situations. The movie's central absurdity is the concept of Harry, the sexless halfwit of the previous film, now carousing the town and somehow being irresistible to women. This time he has a wife (Gladys McConnell, the pregnant lass of the previous film in a wildly different role), but this is domestic comedy Harry-style with a strange gender reversal. Harry stays out late at boisterous lodge meetings, which leads to a sequence of would-be homicide involving the mother-in-law. For this, Harry is sentenced to switch places with his wife for six months. That means his better half puts on mannish attire and goes out to bring home the bacon while Harry wears a dress, does the housework and fights off the attentions of a series of male visitors. This leads to an extended suicide attempt! The film changes direction somewhat when he goes golfing with a chum who must be the only person in the country not to have read about Harry's sentence in the papers. Another Kino release in their Slapstick Symposium series is The Extra Girl, a Mack Sennett production of 1923 made to showcase Mabel Normand, probably the most famous female comic of the era. The first half of the film concerns her small-town life with her parents, her romantic triangle, and her dreams of making it in Hollywood. Her unsuitable suitor is the portly Vernon Dent, a great comic actor from Langdon's shorts. A wedding-day escape leads to the Hollywood portion of the film as she thinks she's going to make it big in pictures. The comic highlight involves a lion. Possibly the most effective scene is the non-comic, acutely human moment when Mabel is discovered by her parents in the act of running away. Hollywood was already one of Hollywood's favorite subjects, and this is part of a line of spoofs that include Merton of the Movies, Ella Cinders and Show People, all of which came later. The feature looks and feels like a strung-together series of bits, a common quality of many comedies. For example, a swindler is thrown into the plot at the last minute for no special reason. Yet Normand is always a charming presence, especially when "acting". This is, by the way, the same 1969-copyrighted tinted print, with the same music, that played on the aforementioned series The Silent Years, but this time we get no Welles intro. A 1913 short, The Gusher, in which she plays the pretty appendage of a childishly hyperactive Ford Sterling, is included as a bonus to show her notable evolution as a comic presence.

Buster Keaton performing stunts in The General

Prev Page

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.


The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.


Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.


How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.


Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.


Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.


Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.