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  • Writer's pictureCarrie Specht

Keaton's Classic Silent Film is Not for Everyone

FlixWise’s latest podcast is on Buster Keaton’s The General. I was a guest for this recording. I love the film, but to be fair and balanced I include here an alternate opinion, provided by guest writer, Amanda Glenn. I think she’s very wrong, but to each their own. The image below is a link to the podcast.

Several years ago, on my second trip to the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival, I saw THE GENERAL on the big screen of the world famous Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. It was the closing night of a wonderful four-day experience, and I chose to end it by watching a classic silent film I had never seen before. I am glad I did, but I doubt I would go out of my way to see it again, even on the small screen. I am not entirely sure why the film left me less than thrilled; after all, it has many factors I find very appealing. It’s an underdog story, a very good one actually, based on a true event. It’s also an intriguing tale of a real episode during the Civil War, and it stars Buster Keaton – one of the silent era’s most talented funny men. I admit I liked it well enough, but I wonder why didn’t I love it.

Was it due to having already seen so many great films during the TCMFF that nothing would have met my expectations? Is it possible that I had a hard time embracing the story because the hero was wearing gray and not the blue of the conflicts eventual winners? I wonder if I would have been stirred more if I could have made the patriotic connection despite the intervening years. Certainly, the film had the drama, the comic relief; the fine timing that was a signature of a Keaton film. Yet the connection for me was not made. There was nothing to spark in me the desire to proclaim The General a masterpiece as so many before me have. So many, I might add, who are far more informed on what makes a great movie great. So, why don’t I agree with these learned individuals?

It can’t have been the venue, which is one of the greatest in the world. It can’t have been the presentation, as it played along with a live orchestra. It can’t have been that a less than receptive audience surrounded me because the folks that go to the TCM Classic Film Festival are exactly the kind of people you want with you for a presentation such as this. I know some people have a problem getting into silent films, let alone black and white pictures. But the fantasy for me was not broken. I did not miss having dialog, however I did have a qualm with the orchestra. As much as I appreciate live music, it did not disappear into the magic of the overall experience as the orchestra for the year before for THE THIEF OF BAGDAD had done. It may be that the exuberance of the previous year’s movie was too hard to live up to. Perhaps it is only that all classic films are not created equal. Or, perhaps, it would be wise to note that one of the very most important reasons to attend a film festival is to “taste”, to sample, to discover the films that sate your personal appetite. Then I need to remember that each of us has a different appetite, which is why it is so wonderful for a festival to present such a wide selection from which to choose.

Of course I will continue to see silent films, most likely most of them at the annual TCM Classic Film Festival. I’ll even give Keaton another try. And I will continue to keep my hopes high. After all, more times than not, when it comes to classic movies those hopes are well met.

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