A beautiful Bildungsroman on film

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Released 22 January 1927, The Kid Brother was the great Harold Lloyd’s penultimate silent, and possibly my favorite of his films after only his silent swan song Speedy (1928). It’s got heart, soul, warmth, emotion, comedic timing, character development, story development, ingenious gags, everything. It’s also a beautiful film equivalent of a Bildungsroman, a growing-up story.

It’s based on the excellent Tol’able David (1921), starring the handsome Richard Barthelmess, and also a remake of Hal Roach’s The White Sheep (1924), starring the rather forgettable Glenn Tryon.

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Harold’s father, Sheriff Jim Hickory, and his two big brothers Leo and Olin have made their name famous throughout the county, but they’ve always figured Harold of no accord. Though he was 33 at the time of filming, he has a suitably boyish look that makes him believable as a kid brother. He’s also not nearly as tall and strapping as the other three.

The Hickorys’ longtime enemies are the Hoopers. Son Hank in particular has hated Harold since Harold sold him a dozen doorknobs as eggs in the dark. Harold uses this feud to his advantage when there’s a mishap with the laundry line.

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While Harold is alternately running away from Hank and retrieving laundry, he meets Mary Powers. Mary’s dad recently died, leaving her with a travelling medicine show. She’s not happy about having to continue the business, but the show must go on.

Mary believes Harold is one of the important Hickorys, and he doesn’t enlighten her. He likes feeling important, since he’s not treated like anyone special at home.

Mary is played by Jobyna Ralston, Harold’s leading lady since 1923. She always brings out the best in him. Bittersweetly, this was their final film together.

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Harold and Mary make a date to go to the opening of a new dam, and when Harold gets home, his father and brothers begin discussing this dam. They leave Harold out of their discussion, but they let him sign the document.

Harold tries to go to their meeting about the dam, but he’s left at home, since that meeting’s no place for boys.

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With the house to himself, he dresses up in his father’s sheriff outfit, and when he steps outside, he’s mistaken for the real sheriff by the medicine show quacks. He’s compelled into signing a document permitting the show to appear in town.

Interestingly, Harold writes right-handed both of the times he writes in this film. Though he lost the first two fingers on his right hand in 1919 and had to learn left-handedness, he also was able to write right-handed. Now that’s talent, not only learning a different handedness, but also learning how to write with a hand that only has three fingers!

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Harold’s dad is quite upset to learn the medicine show is playing, and that Harold impersonated him. Instead of punishing Harold outright, his dad sends him down to break it up, “[s]eeing as you seem to be taking over the duties as sheriff.”

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Things go from bad to worse, as Harold is made into the show’s entertainment and eventually handcuffed to a swinging bar. His dad and brothers come by as he’s trying to free himself, and Harold ends up setting the whole show on fire. In the mêlée that follows, he gets locked into a wicker hamper.

Mary eventually frees him, and since there’s a rainstorm, Harold takes her to his house for shelter. Her new guardians later show up to take her home, seeing as it’s not decent for her to stay in a house without womenfolk.

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As Harold and Mary are on their way to the dam celebration next morning, they discover the money to build the dam has been stolen. Harold’s father is accused, and rightly comes to the conclusion it must’ve been the medicine show goons. Detained as a suspect, he sends his older sons to search. Mary is also held as a suspect.

Harold is tossed into a rowboat and pushed out to sea when he tries to defend Mary. He winds up by a boat called The Black Ghost, and the medicine show monkey tosses down incriminating evidence. Now it’s up to Harold to get on that boat, find the money, bring the villains to justice, and clear his father’s name. If he can do so, he’ll finally prove his worth as a real Hickory.

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Buster Goes to College

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To celebrate Buster Keaton’s centenary of starting his film career, Lea at Silentology is holding the third annual Buster Keaton Blogathon. Click on the button above to see all the other participating posts.

I chose one of Buster’s less-popular films, College, which released 27 September 1927. For an added lift, I’ll also discuss how the film provides a look back at 1920s society and culture.

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Buster plays Ronald, the most brilliant scholar at his high school. On the day of graduation, he and his mother brave a rainstorm to get to the ceremony. We see a pricetag of $15 on Ronald’s suit, indicating he might be returning it afterwards and doesn’t come from a lot of money.

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By the graduation, Ronald gets a medal of honor and is asked to speak. His fellow students hate his speech, since he totally excoriates athletes and celebrates books and the life of the mind. They all laugh at him, and eventually get up and leave. During the speech, he also finds his suit shrinking and splitting.

At the end of the speech, only his doting mother is left in the audience.

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Ronald thought he couldn’t afford Clayton College, but changes his mind when he learns his crush Mary is going there. He’s determined to work his way through, and to join an athletics team so he might finally impress Mary. He first finds work as a soda jerk and then as a “colored waiter,” though neither of those jobs last very long.

He also tries out for the baseball team and the track and field team, but isn’t very successful at either. Mary’s heart starts to soften when she sees how hard he’s trying. She admires his determination, even if he isn’t a natural athlete. Her jock boyfriend Jeff derides Ronald, and tries to remind her of their relationship, but Mary retorts that he takes the seriousness of their couplehood too much for granted.

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Ronald is called into the dean’s office on account of his poor grades, after how proud the dean was to have such a brilliant scholar among his academic ranks. Ronald confesses he’s been trying to impress his crush, and the dean tells him he too had an unrequited love in youth, but he was stubborn and chose his books.

The dean hits upon a possible solution, and orders the rowing coach to make Ronald coxswain. The coach doesn’t want to accept Ronald onto the team, and tries to sabotage him. Before a big race, he slips a sleeping potion into Ronald’s drink, but Ronald winds up drinking from the wrong cup. The other coxswain is the one who gets roofied.

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During the race, Jeff springs a surprise visit on Mary and announces he’s been expelled. He wants to drag her down with him, and locks her door. The plan is for them to get caught alone together, so Mary will be expelled.

In spite of disasters all around, Ronald’s team wins the race. Afterwards, Mary manages to get a phonecall through to him, and he races to the rescue. All of a sudden, he’s transmogrified into a star athlete as he jumps over tall bushes, pole-vaults through the window, and fights with Jeff.

Mary is caught with Ronald in her room, and to avoid further scandal, they announce their engagement and run into a nearby church to be married.

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I love seeing the cost of living in old films. A $15 suit in 1927 would cost $279.13 today, which is on the low end. A designer suit can cost up to $5,000.

The name Mary in 1927 was like Jennifer in my generation. After slipping so far in popularity, it actually seems like an original choice today!

College culture was really hot. The college boy was a national icon, with men aspiring to be one and women aspiring to date one. The popular lure of college was indeed athletics and social life, not intellectual life. There’s an obvious parallel between this film and Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman, though The Freshman has a lot more character and plot development.

Getting a job was so much easier. You could just walk in and get hired, no need for 3–5 years of entry-level experience or an advanced degree.

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How awesome was it that soda fountains used to be so commonplace! Even more awesome that many of them were in regular stores.

In 1927, it wasn’t illegal to advertise jobs specifically for a certain sex or race. Help wanted ads were divided by sex until 1968.

Blackface was a matter-of-fact, accepted part of the culture. When Buster blacked up for the short-lived waiter job, he wasn’t doing it to be offensive and racist. So many modern-day people who get bent out of shape over historical examples of blackface fail to look at the context and intent.

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Until a few decades ago, college authorities acted in loco parentis, in the place of parents. There were curfews, prying-eyed house mothers, and severe consequences for a woman caught with a man in her room. Even if they were only talking instead of making out or even close to one another, it was considered scandalous.

So many modern young women have no idea how much freedom they have, in spite of a continued sexual double standard. It’s commonplace now to have children outside of marriage, live with a boyfriend, marry after having several kids, and sleep with more than one guy ever. All those things had severe consequences in 1927. This wasn’t the era of casually hooking up with lots of partners. I’m laughably old-fashioned for not pursuing casual sex and feeling compromised by having slept with someone I didn’t marry!

1927: An actor carries Buster Keaton, in the role of Ronald, in the 1927 movie College.

This isn’t Buster’s strongest or most memorable film, but it’s a pleasant diversion.

The General at 90, Part III (Reception and legacy)

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The General had been slated for its U.S. première on 22 January 1927, at NYC’s Capitol Theatre, but there was a delay of several weeks due to the blockbuster Flesh and the Devil (a film I highly recommend!). When the film finally made its way to NYC, the real General‘s engine bell was displayed in the lobby for promotional purposes.

After spending $750,000 on the film, Buster earned $50,992 during the single week it was by Capitol. Overall, it made $474,264 in the U.S., and was Buster’s biggest financial failure. One has to remember Buster wasn’t necessarily considered one of the Big Three of silent comedy during his original theatrical run. It was only a few decades later his reputation began increasing.

Thankfully, he did live long enough to see this renaissance and critical re-evaluation of his creative work.

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Critics in 1927 weren’t exactly wild about the picture, using descriptors such as “the least funny thing Buster Keaton has ever done,” “long and tedious,” “far from funny,” “a flop,” “drags terribly,” and “not up to Keaton’s best standards.” A rare positive review came from The Brooklyn Eagle.

It’s important to remember how tastes change. A lot of films, books, TV shows, plays, paintings, etc., which were originally considered flops and 1-star efforts are now widely celebrated. Conversely, many blockbusters or otherwise  popular works have aged very badly.

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In 1963, Buster went on the record as saying he was prouder of The General than any of his other films. Film critics and audiences of later generations came to view the film in a much better light than it was originally seen in, and in 1989, it was chosen for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. This special honor is allotted to films considered to be “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

It was among the first crop of films chosen for such preservation, in the first year this program existed. Other inductees of the Class of 1989 included Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.

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The General was the first American silent film to be issued on Blu-Ray, and the film has been on many of those incessant “best of” lists. Cottage Grove, Oregon, where much of the filming took place, has a building with a mural of the film.

To celebrate the 90th anniversary of both The General and Portland’s Hollywood Theater in 2016, a new score was commissioned, and the film toured Oregon. Following its showing in Cottage Grove, the president of the National Film Archives offered the master print to aid in the creation of a new DVD. This DVD is currently in the works, and an international tour is planned after its release.

The General at 90, Part II (Behind the scenes)

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The General was based upon a true story, William Pittenger’s 1863 memoir The Great Locomotive Chase. Though Mr. Pittenger (one of the first Medal of Honor recipients) was a Union, not Confederate, soldier, the source material concerned a military raid in the South. It began 12 April 1862, when Union Army volunteers hijacked a train and drove it to Chattanooga. Along the way, they severely damaged the Western & Atlantic Railroad line.

Since the Union forces had cut telegraph wires, it was impossible to send warnings. However, the Confederates eventually captured them. Some were executed as spies, while others escaped. The U.S. Congress gave the Medal of Honor to some of the raiders, though they couldn’t award leader James J. Andrews, since he was a civilian and not in the military.

Obviously, I understand some Southerners wouldn’t consider these guys heroes!

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Though the book was written from the Northern POV, Buster didn’t think the audience would accept Confederates as villains, and switched the story’s perspective. The trend in that era to portray the South as underdogs, heroes, victims, etc., may have been due to retrospective romanticizing of “the lost cause,” even among writers and filmmakers who weren’t Southern themselves.

I’m a Northerner myself, but I don’t have any problem with the other side being portrayed sympathetically, just as I don’t have any problem with a positive portrayal of, e.g., a normal family in Nazi Germany. It can be done well, so long as there’s no historical revisionism or sugarcoating of negative aspects of history. We’re all humans, even if some humans have ended up on the losing side of wars.

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Buster filmed in Central Oregon, where there were old-fashioned railroads perfect for the treatment. He’d tried to rent the real-life General, but his request was denied. The owners didn’t want it used in a comedy. In its place, however, Buster bought two vintage Civil War trains from the Oregon, Pacific & Eastern Railway, and bought a third train in Eugene, Oregon, to depict The Texas.

Producer Joseph Schenk (Buster’s brother-in-law at the time) allotted a $400,000 budget. Buster worked on the script for weeks, and grew his hair long for an authentic period feel. When the cast and crew arrived in Oregon, they had 18 freight cars full of Civil War-era stagecoaches, cannons, passenger cars, wagons, houses, and laborers. Regular train service ceased during filming, and 1,500 locals were hired as extras.

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Film production being what it is, the budget began ballooning. Buster built real dams to change the depth of rivers, and also built bridges. There were also a number of on-set accidents adding to the swelling budget, among them Buster (who did all his own stunts) being knocked unconscious.

Other accidents included fires from the train’s engine spreading to farmers’ haystacks (costing $25 per stack) and forests; a train wheel running over a brakeman’s foot and resulting in a $2,900 lawsuit; and an assistant director getting shot in the face with a black cartridge.

It was reported that the budget had grown to between $500,000 and a million dollars. Schenk was quite upset at Buster for spending so much money.

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Between three to four thousand residents of the town of Cottage Grove turned out to watch the climactic train wreck scene, which cost $42,000 and is said to be the most expensive single shot in the history of silent cinema. Among the locals in attendance were 500 extras from the Oregon National Guard. Shooting began four hours late, used six cameras, and required several long runs.

The wreckage was left in the river, and was a minor tourist attraction until 1944–45, when it was salvaged for scrap metal for the war effort.

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Buster and his company were forced to return to Los Angeles on 6 August 1926, due to excessive smoke left in the air after yet another fire, which broke out during a fight scene. This fire cost $50,000. In late August, heavy rains cleared the air, and they returned.

Finally, on 18 September, shooting wrapped. Buster had accrued 200,000 feet of film, and planned a late December release after the long editing process.

The General at 90, Part I (General overview)

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Perhaps Buster Keaton’s best-known film, The General had its grand première 31 December 1926 in Tokyo, and its U.S. première 15 January 1927 in Portland. The London première was 17 January, and there was a double-première in Chicago and Kansas City on 22 January. Finally, on 5 February, the film made it to NYC.

This tends to be one of those silents most people who are otherwise unfamiliar with the lost artform have seen. It’s also routinely voted as Buster’s best film, though I personally prefer Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), The Cameraman (1928), Spite Marriage (1929), and Sherlock, Jr. (1924).

This might be an unpopular opinion, but sometimes it feels like people name such-and-such one of the greatest only because they’ve heard it praised so many times, and aren’t thinking for themselves. I like the film and think it’s one of Buster’s strongest pieces from the silent era, but wouldn’t name it as his greatest or funniest ever. Then again, I’ve always been rather oppositional-defiant!

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Johnnie Gray (Buster) is an engineer for Western & Atlantic Railroad in Marietta, Georgia. He has two loves in his life, his sweetheart Annabelle Lee and his train The General. When the Civil War erupts, he rushes to enlist, but is rejected because his civilian job is too important.

Johnnie isn’t deterred, and tries to sneak in again to enlist. However, he’s caught, and sent home in shame. He bumps into Annabelle’s father and brother, and when he refuses to get in line with them, they think he’s a draft-dodger. When Annabelle finds this out, she declares she won’t speak to him again till he’s in uniform.

This really says a lot about the culture of the time, and how many people thought of war as a grand, glorious, romantic adventure. While I believe the Civil War was more than morally justified, being in battle in any war isn’t a fun, awesome experience. It’s a terrifying matter of life and death. Wilfred Owen’s famous poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” always comes to mind.

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Some time later, Annabelle receives word her father has been wounded, and hops on The General to see him. During a stop en route, Union spies steal the train and inadvertently kidnap Annabelle. Johnnie doesn’t waste a moment in pursuing them, though it’s kind of hard to give chase without a train.

When he reaches Chattanooga, he tells some soldiers what’s happened, and gets on The Texas on hot pursuit. Sadly, since the locomotive isn’t hooked up to the rest of the train, the soldiers are left behind. Johnnie doesn’t realize this until it’s too late.

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The Union spies at first believe Johnnie is accompanied by Confederate soldiers, and try all sorts of things to get him off their tail. When Johnnie realizes he’s thick in enemy territory, and the spies in turn realize Johnnie is alone, Johnnie runs into the forest to hide.

Under cover of night, Johnnie sneaks into a house for food, and hides under a table when he sees Union soldiers approaching. First he overhears their plans for a sneak attack, and then he sees them bringing Annabelle in. Johnnie seizes the chance to rescue her. In the morning, Johnnie devises a plan to take back The General and warn the Confederate Army about the planned attack. I won’t spoil what happens after this.

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Though I personally feel this film is a tad bit overrated, you can’t really go wrong with any of Buster’s silents. His MGM talkies are another matter, though that was due largely to being a victim of circumstance, not because he couldn’t make the transition to sound well. Buster had an awesome voice, and had so many great ideas, but the studio system wasn’t good for him. Louis B. Mayer also hated comedians. At least Buster was able to make a comeback later in life.