Flickchart Film School: 1926

27 Mar

1926, seemingly by coincidence, became a gigantic year of firsts – not only for some of the biggest filmmakers of all time, but also for the technology and growth of film.

Alfred Hitchcock finished his first credited film The Pleasure Garden, even though it wouldn’t be released until after his success of The Lodger in 1927. Hitchcock also became engaged to Alma Reville while filming The Pleasure Garden. Reville would play a huge part in the creation of all of Hitchcock’s masterpieces. 

In the film Brown of Harvard, audiences didn’t realize they had caught a glimpse of an actor who would be one of film’s most recognizable actors. John Wayne made his first film appearance, albeit in an uncredited role as a member of Yale’s football team.

Charlie Chan also made his first of many appearances as one of serial film’s greatest stars in The House Without a Key. Warner Oland would go on to play Charlie Chan in forty-seven films.

New York City became the first city ever to hear their movies as well as see them, with the first Vitaphone sound film debuting in NYC. Don Juan, the first film to use the process, had sound and music synchronized with the actions on film, however the process did not include dialogue. The process was developed by Warner Bros. and Western Electric, but the patents were soon bought by William Box and the name was changed to Movietone.

Moana, Robert J. Flaherty’s South Seas follow-up to his huge hit Nanook of the North became the first film to be referred to as a documentary. John Grierson, who went by the nom de plume “The Moviegoer”, used the term in his New York Sun review for the film.

Douglas FairbanksThe Black Pirate also became the first full-length blockbuster color film, however it would be several years before color films became the norm.

We also saw the rise of many of the biggest female stars of the 1920s. Clara Bow signed a contract with Paramount and made six films with the company, planning on leaving film when her contract expired in 1931. Greta Garbo would also star in three different films this year, The Temptress, Torrent and Flesh and the Devil. After co-starring with John Gilbert in Flesh and the Devil, the two planned to get married in September, but Garbo left Gilbert at the altar. Meanwhile, David Belasco, a Broadway producer took stage actress Ruby Stevens and changed her name to Barbara Stanwyck.

 The best film of 1926 as voted by the users of Flickchart is The General. Based on the true events of The Great Locomotive Chase, The General (co-directed with Clyde Bruckman) has become Buster Keaton’s most famous film, despite poor reviews and financial failure upon in its original release. Released near the end of the silent film era, critics called The General disappointing and tedious. With a budget of $750,000, The General only made around $500,000 domestically, yet made about a million dollars worldwide. The General also features the single most expensive shot from the silent film era, when a train crashes off a burning bridge. Rumor is that the train still remains in the water below, almost ninety years later. The film ruined Keaton’s career at the time, and he was forced into a deal with MGM that restricted what he could do with his films.

Even though the film was considered a failure when it was first released, The General has gone down as one of the all-time greats. The General entered the National Film Registry in 1989 along with classics like Gone With the Wind, Citizen Kane and Casablanca. AFI has called the movie one of the twenty funniest and greatest films ever made. In 2012’s Sight and Sound list, The General tied for 34th place with Psycho and was voted as one of the best films of all-time by such diverse voters as Greg Mottola, Roger Ebert, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

Keaton wrote, directed, and starred in The General as Johnnie Gray – an engineer who desperately wants to become a soldier to impress his love, Annabelle Lee. Gray goes to enlist to fight in the Civil War for the South, yet is turned away. Upon hearing this, Annabelle says that she doesn’t want to talk to him until he’s in a uniform. When spies from the North steal Gray’s train, which just so happens to have Annabelle in it, Gray chases after his two loves.

Like most silent comedies, The General is a story of mistakes and confusions. The thieves believe that Gray is much more heavily matched against them, even though Gray is completely alone on his chasing train. As is commonplace with Keaton films, his reactions to his situations bring most of the humor, as his deadpan stare rarely changes even when his position grows more dire.

The General is also quite a spectacle to witness, even to this day. Keaton used hundreds of extras, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to destroy trains, and all of it shows. Even more impressive is that Keaton did all of his own stunts, which is shocking considering the dangerous situations Gray gets into. However like Harold Lloyd in Safety Last! before him, the dedication and sheer shock value of seeing a huge silent film star risk his life for his film is still fascinating to see.

The General is a very important film to see, given its cinematic reverence - especially within the silent film era – yet I can somewhat agree with the critics of 1926. As a huge fan of Keaton’s 1924 short films The Navigator, and especially Sherlock Jr., The General feels like it could have benefited from more judicious editing. At times, The General drags and the humor is too spread out. 

There are still scenes that are laugh-out-loud hilarious, such as when Gray takes a photo with his beloved train, or when he tries to sneak Annabelle on a train while she’s trapped in a sack. That being said, I do think that Keaton tends to work better in smaller doses than he does in The General. A film like Sherlock Jr. showcases Keaton’s talents while also minimizing the amount of downtime throughout that almost two-hour film.

For those interested in more films from 1926, check out these films:

Keaton also released another film this year that he directed and starred in, Battling Butler, where Keaton plays a weak man pretending to be a boxer to earn the respect of the family of a girl he loves.

The German film, The Adventures of Prince Achmed, is believed to be the earliest full-length animated film to still exist. The film uses characters cut out of black cardboard, and is comprised of 96,000 frame-by-frame stills.

Some of history’s greatest directors also had their own 1926 releases. John Ford released two films, 3 Bad Men and Blue Eagle, F. W. Murnau had Faust: A German Folk Legendand Jean Renoir released his film Nana.

Come back next time when we will discuss 1927, the first Oscar ceremony, and Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans.

  • Caesar

    I definitely agree with you about The General needing some more prudent editing. That’s always been my main problem with the film.

  • David Greenwood

    I’m a huge Keaton fan, and I will respectfully disagree with this criticism of The General. What I think is revolutionary about it is precisely what doomed it to failure: It invented the action comedy. Critics and audiences at the time either complained that it was funny enough or wasn’t thrilling enough. They were expecting one or the other. I think it strikes a great balance between the two, and is the clearest possible example of how much of an influence Keaton was on Jackie Chan, whose films follow a similar template to this one. It’s the silent film I recommend to people who refuse to watch silent films.

    The silent film I recommend to people who ARE willing to watch silent films is Sunrise, but that’s for next time :)

    • http://www.facebook.com/ross.bonaime Ross Bonaime

      Well, The General didn’t exactly invent the action comedy, but it’s one the first classic examples of the genre. It’s like how The Jazz Singer isn’t technically the first sound film, but it’s the film that popularized the technique. I do find it funny and thrilling, but I prefer his more precisely edited films. Sherlock Jr. is so lean and well edited that it’s near perfect. It does blend the two well, but I think having it trimmed a bit would have made it even more effective.

      I don’t know if Jackie Chan would be the best example, since Chan is very expressive and what makes Keaton so great is his constant deadpan. The closest comedy-wise that I can think of is Bill Murray or Steve Carell.

      I still prefer the work of Chaplin to Keaton, and maybe even Harold Lloyd over Keaton. For someone not willing to see silent films, I’d suggest probably City Lights or Modern Times. And I agree, I’m going to gush over Sunrise so much with the next post. Maybe the best film of the entire 20s.

    • David Greenwood

      With regard to Jackie Chan, I meant that his mix of comedy, thrills and insane stuntwork is very much along the lines of The General. Clearly Chan is more of an outright clown, but he’s acknowledged a debt to Keaton in interviews and I can really see it most in this film.

      I think the other nice thing about The General is that to modern audiences I think it plays the best out of Keaton’s work. I’m a fan of silent films but comedy is a tricky thing. I’ve never really “got” Chaplin, and I think many people my age would find that the thrills and stunts of The General have aged surprisingly well.