Buster Keaton’s The General is still a wonder to behold. It doesn’t attempt to procure any particular acclaim outside of entertaining, and yet today it’s considered a masterpiece of the silent era. There’s no high concept theme sermonizing about the “human condition” or sophisticated cinematic techniques commenting on the plot and/or characters. It just tells a good story and chugs along. Like its homegrown protagonist, it’s the film’s charm and deceptively simple approach that makes it such a unique and delightful experience. Which really could be said about the work of any of Keaton’s contemporaries (see Harry Langdon in The Strong Man). They made the laughs look far much easier than what they really were, often breaking a couple of bones along the way. And when they got it right, well… how else could one describe their movies but sublime. And that The General is, standing out in a somewhat tepid year for film.
1. The General (Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton)
2. 3 Bad Men (John Ford)
3. The Scarlet Letter (Victor Sjöström)
4. Faust (F.W. Murnau) and The Adventures of Prince Achmed (Lotte Reiniger)
5. Mother (Vsevolod Pudovkin)
6. The Strong Man (Frank Capra)
7. Moana (Robert Flaherty)
8. The Black Pirate (Albert Parker)
9. Ménilmontant (Dimitri Kirsanoff)
10. Flesh and the Devil (Clarence Brown)
3 Bad Men is one of John Ford’s best, skewing the lines between corrupt authority figures and noble criminals long before directors like Anthony Mann or Sam Peckinpah revised the genre. And this is Ford we’re talking about! In the nineteen-twenties! Then there’s Lillian Gish at a culmination in her career. While other actresses scrounged for the kewpie doll/gamine roles, Gish was busy challenging herself with each new film, enriching her body of work by continuously expanding the boundaries of her craft and paving the way for other great American movie actresses to come (à la Bette Davis and Meryl Streep).
But Gish does get quite the stiff competition from Greta Garbo, who’s luster is equally as bright in Flesh and the Devil. That film makes it on the list just over a handful of other strong contenders. But I’ve got to learn to have a little self-control, especially after cramming The Adventures of Prince Achmed in there with another gloriously visualized German classic. So Flesh and the Devil has to stick it out on its own at the number ten spot.
Those that did miss the cut include Teinosuke Kinugasa’s feverish A Page of Madness and Ernst Lubitsch’s jazz age extravaganza So This is Paris; the latter based on a couple of hilarious skits I discovered online in an otherwise hard-to-find comedy. Mary Pickford had Sparrows, which has one of the most touching scenes involving an orphan and an apparition that captures the pathos of the moment just right, and Rudolph Valentino bids farewell with The Son of the Sheik. Then there’s Raoul Walsh’s boisterous What Price Glory?, one of Harold Lloyd’s self-proclaimed “gag pictures,” For Heaven’s Sake, and the criminally underrated Beatrice Lillie laughing it up in Exit Smiling. And where’s Chaplin? Perhaps he needed to take a break after climbing up the Klondike.
Next week: 1973. Has anybody seen my cat?