Sunday, 26 April 2015

Blockbuster! The General (1926) and One Week (1920) with Carl Davis and Philharmonia Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall

“He seems like a modern visitor to the world of the silent clowns.” Roger Ebert

A big night for Buster as the film buffs and concert crowd gathered together to watch Carl Davis conduct the mighty Philharmonia Orchestra in playing his own scores for two of stone face’s finest. We may have clashed sartorially – and I did have visions of a potential Mods vs Rockers conflagration, though thankfully things didn’t “kick off” – but, ultimately we all grooved to Mr Davis and the band and we all laughed together, out loud and a lot.

Silent films were often shown in large auditoriums and with full orchestral backing so this grand occasion was not unbefitting especially given the scale of Keaton’s comic adventure. I hadn’t watched The General for a long time and here, presented in the recent upgrade, it was indeed re-masterful.

"If you loose the war, don't blame me..."
Having watched or rather, been assaulted by, the new Avengers film earlier in the day with my son, I thought I’d been all punched out but Keaton can still compete with the modern thriller with all of its technological advantages. In the language of that film he’s “augmented”: someone who has super-human qualities that are a special effect all of their own. Allied to this is his creative energy which ensures that not only is there always something happening it’s also funny. Other directors of the time cut very quickly and whilst he and co-director Clyde Bruckman do just that Keaton also has an action-reaction-action loop switched to fast forward.

Amidst all of this chaos, there remains that face: impassive, at peace… absorbing every blow whilst immediately figuring out a way to respond. As David Gill once said to Carl Davis, Keaton is a problem-solver and his stories are a triumph of resolute improvisations against all odds: the comedy of hope.

Buster sets off in lone pursuit
Carl Davis understands this on an orchestral scale and his compositions, which could easily overwhelm the 90 year-old subject matter, are subtle and leverage the power inherent in the film as much as any hyper-produced Danny Elfman or Alan Silvestri score. If anything the modern sonics are over-loud cheats to get a cheap animal response whereas Buster and Carl are so much smarter than that. Together they project in emphatic unison and you are drawn into rather than enveloped.

So it was that The General’s true nature was revealed as an action adventure as much as a comedy. It is a great story based on William Pittenger’s book about actual events in the Civil War and it is superbly filmed. Cinematographers Bert Haines and Devereaux Jennings shot on a parallel line and the narrative is steam-powered by the constant motion of machine, men and horses.

Buster misses the Northern advance and the Southern retreat
At one point Buster is so busy trying to stoke the loco’s fires that he completely missed the mass retreat of the Confederate forces and the thousands of Unionist soldiers in pursuit – a large scale replica of Buster’s persona: calm amongst the chaos.

Then as Buster and his true love Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack) try to steam their way to safety, they start rowing as she gets over picky about which bits of wood to use and then starts sweeping the cab. Only Buster would place a domestic quibble in the middle of a war.

Marion Mack
Keaton is an equal-opportunities comedian and he always ensures that his leading ladies carry a fair share of the pratfalls and his southern belle is as daft and brave as he. Meanwhile the generals of the North are sillier still as it takes them ages to work out how to fix the tracks and their engineer a few seconds. Maybe Buster wasn’t so impressed with Generals in general?

By the mid-twenties, Buster could do pretty much what he liked, resulting in this film… one of the most expensive ever made and, at the time, a relative flop that was to curtail his creative freedom. Those guys at the top, they didn’t really have a clue.

Home sweet home...
On the under-card tonight was One Week (1920) Buster’s first solo effort after years of duetting with Roscoe Arbuckle.

Directed and written by Keaton along with Edward F. Cline the film was a smash and began his establishment as a major star in his own right and you can see why as it hurtles along with the same wit and rapid improvisations as the longer, later film.

Sybil and Buster on the swing
The film was a parody of the Ford Motor Company documentary, Home Made (1919), an educational short about prefabricated housing: it all looked far too easy for Buster who set out to show how things could all wrong so very easily…

Again he puts his female lead through her paces, this time a young Sybil Seely, who flies up in the air as their pre-fab wall spins Buster down and gets thrown in the dirt as the storm spins them round. She also gets featured in a bathroom scene so daring the cameraman eventually puts his hand over the lens.

Sybil's impressed with the man at work...
But it’s Buster who takes the big risks as he battles to erect their flat-packed house only to be flattened by the arrival of their piano, dropped from a great height and, famously, almost obliterated by an on-rushing locomotive. There was something about Buster and trains…

Before the green screen, a real train and a big smash!
By the end of the evening the taste of those digitized Avengers was washed away as the real super heroes were revealed: Buster and Carl took flight.

The General is now available complete with Mr Davis’ score on Kino Blu-ray direct or from Amazon whilst One Week is also on a Kino Blu-ray  through Amazon.   

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