From Here to Eternity

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From Here to Eternity (1953)

From Here to Eternity (1953)

There’s a reason From Here to Eternity won eight Academy Awards and was nominated for five others. The stellar cast is in large part responsible as two leading men and several supporting characters of almost leading caliber delivery hard-hitting performances.

The story follows a Hawaiian military base in the months preceding the attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s official entrance into World War II. Because the country is not at war for most of the picture, however, we get to see what life was like for the “30-year” men who enlisted with the aim of making a career out of military life. Yes, they do drills, but they also spend their evenings in town getting drunk and meeting women.

But the story is as unsavory as that. It commences with the arrival of Pvt. Robert E. Lee Pruitt (Montgomery Clift) on base, having transferred from his post as a bugler because he was passed over for the first bugle position. He was directed to his receiving base because Capt. Holmes (Philip Ober) once saw him box and aspires to have his division win the inter-regiment boxing league. Pruitt refuses to box, however, because the last time he did he blinded a man.

Pruitt’s story surrounds the intimidation and mistreatment he receives at the hands of the other boxing men in the ranks who try to pressure him to enter the ring. Pruitt makes a great pal, however, in Pvt. Maggio (Frank Sinatra) –a high-spirited soldier who introduces Pruitt to the benefits of a social club in town. It is at said club that Pruitt meets Lorene (Donna Reed), with whom he quickly falls in love. The two maintain a romance that is stifled by Lorene’s confession she does not want to marry an army man.

Maggio, meanwhile, makes a fast enemy in “Fatso”, the sergeant of the stockades (Ernest Borgnine). At a bar in town, Maggio argues with him over the sergeant’s piano playing, the musician calls Maggio a “wop” and the disagreement continues for months. When Maggio is given a last-minute assignment to cover the watch, he shirks his duty and goes on with his original plans to get drunk. His court martial lands him in the stockade where Fatso brutally beats him for weeks. Maggio escapes from the stockade and finds his way to Pruitt only to die moments later.

But those two dramatic tales are not alone in From Here to Eternity. Burt Lancaster as Sgt. Warden presents the story’s romantic plot. Warden is assistant to Cpt. Holmes and catches the eye of the philandering officer’s wife, Karen (Deborah Kerr). Although Karen has been known to get around herself, she confesses to never having known a feeling like that she experiences with Warden. By the end of the movie, the couple hopes to get married, but if Karen is to divorce Holmes, Warden will have to secure an officer’s position in order to transfer out of the regiment. The enlisted man is resistant to the idea, however, and when the war starts, everything will change.

No matter which character you become invested in, by the end of From Here to Eternity you will find yourself heartbroken. For a war movie set during (relative) peace time, the tragedies endured by the various characters are significant. Although the villains –Cpt. Homes and Fatso– get what they deserve, the sweetest character –Maggio– suffers the worst fate. Sinatra won the Best Supporting Actor award and deservedly so. He had pushed to get the role for which producers had passed over Eli Wallach because of his salary demands. Filmmakers thought Sinatra’s skinny build portrayed the helpless image the character called for, and so he got the part. Joan Crawford endeavored to take the role of Karen but also had demands that put her off for the filmmakers. The role was a different one for Kerr who typically played sophisticated roles. Although she brings an upper class air to the part, the character nevertheless has a semi-sordid past.

The direction of the film, by Fred Zinnemann is also superb with beautifully composed deep-focus shots and some of the most memorable scenes in movie history –see Lancaster and Kerr cavorting among the waves. From Here to Eternity does nothing to show the Army in a positive light, yet the Army itself approved its screening in camps. The Navy, meanwhile, banned it for its derogatory portrayal of a sister service.

Source: TCM.com

All Quiet on the Western Front

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All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

Telling a World War story from the German perspective was not a common occurrence in classic film, but in 1930 Hollywood did just that with All Quiet on the Western Front. Based on the classic novel by German World War I veteran Erich Maria Remarque, the story is told from a neutral position that describes the personal impact of war on the soldiers without delving into the political motivations for the conflict itself.

The lengthy story follows a group of classmates who are inspired to enlist by the exhilarating speech of a teacher. The heat of the moment and peer pressure leads a great number of them to join up together, but basically none of those boys will make it out unscathed. After surviving training, the men go to a combat zone where chaos has hit a town. They are joined up with older soldiers and want to know where they can find some grub, but the incumbent soldiers have been without food for much longer. The young men bond with “Kat” Katczinsky (Louis Wolheim) over the pig he has procured for dinner and the cigarettes and other loot the boys hand over as payment for the meal.

The men next spend sleepless days in the trenches waiting for a bombardment to cease. One soldier, Kemmerich (Ben Alexander), loses his nerve and runs out of the bunker and is injured. This boy once bragged about the nice boots his uncle gave him to use at the front, but at the hospital his peers beg him to give them up because his leg has been amputated. Kemmerich dies in the hospital with Paul (Lew Ayers) by his side, who retrieves the boots for another soldier. Mueller (Russell Gleason) is quite pleased by the comfort the boots afford, but he will expire and the boots will pass on to another soldier, who will also find no need for them.

Paul slowly becomes our protagonist and we particularly bond with him when he spends most of a day in a shell hole with a French soldier he has stabbed. The enemy is slow in dying and Paul suffers a range of emotions as he promises to save the man and becomes furious that he will not awaken to forgive him. Paul is later wounded and sent to a hospital where he learns about a “dying room” where men are taken just before they pass so that a bed in the ward can be freed. He becomes hysterical when taken to this room, but returns triumphant. The injury has afforded him leave and time to return to his home. There his parents are quite proud and insist he wear his uniform, but Paul cannot relate to his former way of life and his inability to cope leads him back to the front early. By this point, all but Kat are no longer part of the Second Company he once knew.

I read the book of “All Quiet on the Western Front” when I was in college and do not remember too much of it. What has always stuck in my mind, however, is the story of the boots and their importance to the men and their movement from one individual to the next. I also distinctly remember how detailed the experience of Paul in the hole with the dying soldier was and how much space was spent describing that encounter.

The story is one of the more honest accounts of war that does not overly dramatize the experience. Although the film starts out with equal attention paid to all the young men, before we know it we find ourselves intensely invested in Paul. When the character returns to the classroom of that inspirational teacher while on leave, I could not help but notice the stark contrast between the young, fresh-faced boy who started the film there and the sullen-eyed man who returned to it.

Ayres’ performance is remarkable. He plays consoling, hysterical and cynical all very well and is easy to sympathize with. It is a wonder he was not nominated for an award. The movie did win Best Director for Lewis Milestone and Best Picture at the Oscars that year.

  • All Quiet on the Western Front is set for 8 p.m. ET Feb. 6 on TCM.

Feature: Movie Posters from France

I have done posts in the past comparing U.S. movie posters for American films to those advertisements that were produced internationally for the same flicks. Italy has proven to be a good source of interesting posters (see this post for examples), but France is no slacker when it comes to out doing the Americans on the artsy side. The following are some comparisons between the American posters and French. Which versions do you prefer? If you have your own favorite French posters, please share.

FRANCE VS. AMERICA

The American poster is not bad for Touch of Evil, but the French one is even more dramatic. While the U.S. made the poster suggestive via the embrace between Janet Leigh and Charlton Heston, the French more subtly suggested the bedroom action by framing the characters with a bed post. The foreign version might actually convey to audiences that Heston is responsible for the horrible bed-based action Leigh will suffer in two different settings, whereas the American version is a bit more romantic.

You can see the similarities between where the French and the Americans were going with the poster for Operation Petticoat. Both are provocative with the woman’s legs, but I must say the French had a bit more fun with the depiction of the men’s reaction. I’m laughing more at the French one than the American.

Another sexy movie with two different posters approaches is The Lady from Shanghai. All versions of the American poster featured that same pose by Rita Hayworth, but the French version certainly has a more interesting and artistic quality. This might be a matter of taste. What do you say?

Now for some comedy/war fun. Although the American version assures us there will be laughs to be had, the French poster draws a very serious picture. It is not bereft, however, of two men dancing together, so a close enough look sheds some light into the elements of Stalag 17. However misleading, I do appreciate the artistry of the French approach.

This difference might be my favorite. The Lost Weekend approaches both emphasize the seriousness of the film, but where the American take crowds in unnecessary elements, the French took a simplistic view. For those who have yet to see the picture, the bat surely will present some confusion, and it references only a minor, yet memorable, scene in the movie tracing an alcoholic’s helplessness under the influence of drink.

What it your analysis?

Operation Petticoat

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Operation Petticoat (1977)

I shied away from Operation Petticoat for about eight years now because why on earth would I want to watch a Cary Grant movie that costars another man. If he’s not being romantic, I have little motivation to watch Grant. Thankfully, I did finally convince myself to sit down with the war comedy that costars Tony Curtis and is directed by the fabulous Blake Edwards, a favorite of mine.

Although the majority of the plot focuses on a clash between experienced submarine Lt. Cmdr. Matt Sherman (Grant) and the new recruit whose military experience has been in the realm of “entertainment”, the story does eventually introduce a host of women, one of which will bring out Grant’s romantic qualities, however reluctantly.

The vessel, the “Sea Tiger”, is ready to head to battle from its station in the Philipines when the base is bombed by enemy aircraft. The submarine then must undergo serious repairs even though it is nearly beyond remedy. Showing up in time to help is Nick Holden (Curtis), who arrives in a glorious white uniform, attracting the attention of all around. He does not know how to behave as part of an actual naval command, but the skills he does have prove immensely helpful.

With little backing from the higher ups, the crew of the Sea Tiger struggle to get the materials they need to make repairs. Holden leads a number of theft operations that involve absconding with materials as absurd as a portion of a metal wall. At last the men are ready to head to sea, and Holden has all the amenities a man could want in his officer’s cabin, including his custom-made uniforms.

A leak in the archaic submarine forces a stop at an island for repairs. Holden scouts the land and returns with half a dozen women officers who had been stranded there. Sherman is reluctant to let them on board, but eventually concedes. He immediately interacts with the clumsy, busty Dolores (Joan O’Brien) in helping to dislodge her shoe from the sub’s deck. Their accidental encounters will continue.

Holden starts in on the women romantically, raising Sherman’s ire and eventually getting himself confined to his quarters. Holden’s motivation for joining the Navy was merely to secure a uniform and with that to lure a wealthy wife. He has such a fiancée on land, but the woman he has targeted on board is ignorant of this.

During another repair stop, the crew endeavors to repaint the Sea Tiger. Before putting on the grey topcoat, the men use the only base paint available –red and white. The result is a pink ship that is unable to be topcoated before enemy planes force an exit from the island. Tokyo Rose speaks over the air about the silly, American pink sub, but other U.S. forces think this might be a trick. When the pink submarine comes into view, they attack it. With the help of the women, and their undergarments, the crew is able to save themselves.

Operation Petticoat is not nearly as zany as most Blake Edwards flicks. But considering it is a war picture, perhaps it is the wildest one you will see featuring men at war. The story plays with clashes in personalities with the obstinate Holden constantly proving ingenious ways to veer from standard protocol. Naturally there is also the sexual tension that comes from keeping both genders in such close quarters.

Grant plays the straight-laced Lieutenant Commander part well and Curtis is smashing as the rebel. The women’s performances are nothing special and really are there only to drive the plot, as this movie belongs to the male stars. Operation Petticoat is a lot of fun, probably the most you will see in a submarine.

 

 

Wings

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Wings (1927)

     What makes a movie worthy of the first ever Academy Award for Best Picture? What constituted greatness in 1929? Apparently a couple million dollars and more effort than perhaps has ever been put into the production of a film.

     Wings would not have been possible had so many parties not come together to make it happen. Whether it was the director with flying experience William Wellman,  the starring actors who took flying lessons and filmed themselves in the air, the stuntmen whose spiraling-toward-death aerial moves were caught on film, or the $15 million-worth of equipment and personnel the military supplied to make the war flick as realistic as possible.

     This Paramount Picture was released on Blu-Ray this year and luckily with it came the release of a DVD reprint, copies of which have been hard to come by. This latest remastering produced images so clear they sort of blew my mind given they are 85 years old. The opening shot in particular is spectacular in clarity. The new edition also allows the viewer to watch the scenes with a re-recorded symphonic score complete with sound effects or an organ rendition. With the sound effects, one can almost forget she is watching a silent flick.

     Wingstells a story of love and war. Two young men are in love with the same high-class girl and both leave for WWI together. This Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston), is preparing a locket with her photo in it for David (Richard Arlen) but when Jack (Buddy Rogers) arrives at her home first, he misunderstands the gift –and Sylvia’s affections– as being for him. Sylvia convinces David her love lie truly with him, but the men head to training with a rivalry brewing.

     After their tensions grow to a boiling point, the pilot trainees box each other until David is down and out. From then on the two are best pals. But the thrill of learning to fly –a lifelong dream of Jack’s– is sobered by the near instantaneous death of tent-mate Cadet White, played for a minute and a half by Gary Cooper, who crashes during a training exercise minutes after meeting the boys.

     Once overseas, American flyers Jack and David make a great pair but Jack is proving himself an obvious hero. During their time in France, a girl from the men’s hometown, Mary (Clara Bow), arrives as part of volunteer women’s group. Mary has been in love with Jack and good friends with the young man who is oblivious to her feelings. Mary comes across Jack drunk in the arms of a French woman at the Folies Bergere and fights to get him back by herself getting gussied up. The evening ends with Mary discovered changing back into her uniform in Jack’s room, leading her to resign in disgrace. Jack meanwhile was too drunk to know it was she who visited him.

     Jack and David’s relationship also gets a black eye when the two have a spat over Sylvia’s picture as David seeks to prevent his pal from discovering it was meant for him. The two head to the skies without their ritual “All set?” “OK”  routine and David crashes amidst enemy fire. He survives but flees the Germans on foot. He will later commandeer an enemy plane to get back to the Allied side, but Jack will see the lone plane as a target.

     The practical effects in Wings are beyond belief. Wellman had cameras bolted to the wings and bodies of planes to get all the amazing aerial shots of the battles and crashes. Planes were created with two cock pits for the actual pilot and the actor, Arlen had been a pilot in WWI and Rogers was also trained to fly the vehicles. In doing so, they would operate a camera affixed directly in front of them and do their own multiple takes as they conveyed expressions of victory and concern. When one German plane spirals from the sky, the stunt pilot is filmed face on and we can see the actual spinning background. Much of that is thanks to Wellman’s insistence that filming take place only with blue skies and clouds. Without clouds, he knew, there would be no context for the planes’ movement.

     I’m so excited to finally cross the first movie to win Best Picture from my Oscar list. True that the first ceremony was held in 1929, butWings spent two years in theaters at ticket prices of a hefty $2. It also one for Best Special Effects. I cannot imagine how blown away audiences were with the flight scenes in the movie at that time because they sure take my breath away now.

Source: DVD Extra “Wings: Grandeur in the Sky”; TCM.com

Shoulder Arms

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Shoulder Arms (1918)

The Little Tramp has never looked so well kempt as when he is in uniform, but Charlie Chaplin‘s daring war comedy Shoulder Arms risked offending audiences at the time. Ready for release in 1918, World War I was not quite over and Chaplin was advised that audiences might not want to see him make light of the serious subject. Others said Americans needed the pick-me-up, and so Chaplin went through with the scheduled release on Oct. 20 that year. It was very well received.

Forget the usual raggedy slouch pants and scruffy derby hat the Tramp usually wears, Chaplin’s character this time wears slightly oversized uniform pants and a jacket a size too small. His shoes are their usual oversized sort, and the helmet of “Doughboy” is not far from his usual chapeau either.

Shoulder Arms opens on Doughboy in training and having a hard time holding his weapon properly or turning about face. He is often scolded by his superior officer for walking pigeon-toed, which naturally brings all the silliness possible to a march. Going for a nap, Doughboy next takes us to the trenches “over there.” A nice tracking shot follows Chaplin as he strolls obliviously through the trench and back, with explosions happening just behind him all the time –indicated audibly by a slide whistle and drum-cymbal crash.

The troops have a decent underground bunk room where Doughboy sets up his back-scratching cheese grater and finds his feet might be too long for the bed. The bunk room is decent until the rain starts pouring in. By the time Doughboy gets leave to rest, his bed is underwater. This does not phase him as he fluffs his soaked pillow and pulls the submerged blankets over him. His snoring neighbor gets disrupted, however, when Doughboy’s annoyance at the noise results in a wave of water sloshing over the other soldier’s face.

The rest of this 36-minute short includes Doughboy’s leaving the trenches for the field of battle –where he disguises himself as a tree– only to end up finding Edna Purviance’s character and taking refuge in her home. As can be expected of the tramp character, his bumbling ways result in his capturing the top German foe and delivering them to his superiors.

Chaplin is his usual great self, bringing us a character who behaves so nonchalantly while disturbing everything around him. Chaplin often had his Tramp behave in this way where he goes about some unnatural activity with the greatest of ease. In this case it was getting into an underwater bed. In The Kid it was preparing a meal in the manner that poverty dictated he must. These straight-faced scenes offer great amusement in both the well-rehearsed movement of the star as well as the absurdity of the activities. Watch the entire movie here:

Source: Robert Osborne

The Fighting 69th

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The Fighting 69th (1940)

     One of the reasons I started blogging about the classic movies I am constantly watching is because I tend to forget what I have seen. Often movie titles reveal little about a movie’s actual plot and many of the scenarios blend together to the point that I found myself getting 15 minutes into Sinatra‘s Higher and Higher more than once before realizing I had already endured it. The same is true of James Cagney in The Fighting 69th. I sat through this entire movie the other day and eventually concluded that, indeed, I had seen it before yet had entirely forgotten it. And as the days passed since watching it last week I found again that it was becoming forgettable.

     I am not sure what makes a movie flee one’s memory banks. I’m sure the pedestrian nature of some stories or the unimpactful story of others makes a movie not worth remembering, but The Fighting 69th is not a story or a performance worth mentally abandoning. Cagney not only gives a great performance of an arrogant, if not obnoxious soldier, but it is one of only two movies I can think of that depict American war cowards (the other be For Me and My Gal). The ratio of war-hero to war-coward movies must be in the range of thousands to one and yet The Fighting 69th leaves only a fleeting impression on me.

     Cagney plays Jerry Plunkett who has joined up with an all-Irish New York military outfit that during the Civil War was known as the Fighting 69th. They maintain that title in World War I. During training stateside, all Jerry can do is complain about how he wants to see some action and slur sass at his superior officers, including Father Duffey, played by common Cagney costar Pat O’Brien.

     Even when the troop gets to Europe, Jerry tries to show his mettle by carrying multiple loads while the other men struggle to endure the endless walks in the mud. When the bullets finally start flying, however, Jerry becomes a royal screw up. He sends up a flare from the trenches one night that signals to the enemy their location, and the shell fire results in an underground cave in that kills many soldiers. Jerry continues to make spineless mistakes that result in the death of others to the point that he is imprisoned and set for execution. The man will thankfully redeem himself before his end.

     Cagney does a great job in this role that although it separated him from his gangster persona, still rings of a low life. The story is poignant in that it connects us with three brothers among the Fighting 69th of varying rank (Alan Hale, Dick Foran, William Lundigan). When one dies our hearts break as they do when the poet we’ve gotten to know also meets his fate. Although the reaction might vary by viewer, I did not feel remorse for Jerry’s loss as it became a necessary means to an end and solution that could pardon him from his past sins.

The Train

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The Train (1965)

     Actors today cannot really get away with playing foreign characters and not using the appropriate accent. That was not so in the past when performers were hired for other qualities –perhaps box office draw or other ability to fill the role– besides their vocal skills. The Train is one such example, in which Burt Lancaster is the only player with an American accent in a cast composed of French and German actors and characters, many of whom had their dialogue post-synched. Truth be told, however, Lancaster’s lack of effort in this area does nothing to detract from this otherwise impactful and thrilling picture.

     Lancaster is Labiche, the Frenchman in charge of rail line that runs near Paris during the tail end of Germany’s occupation there. The plot is driven by one German officer’s desire to remove many valuable paintings from a French museum and have them shipped to Germany. This art, considered the heritage of France, includes all the greats: Renoir, Degas, Van Gogh, Gauguin –you name it, it’s there. Seeing as the Allied forces are set to hit Paris any day and the Germans are in the process of retreat, it is this Col. von Waldheim’s (Paul Scofield) intent to get the art on the soonest train possible, a plan that is hindered when Labiche cancels his train to prioritize another. After much negotiating, von Waldheim manages to get another train procured for his art.

     Meanwhile, the curator of the source museum is talking with Labiche and other French rebels working the rail lines about having the train sabotaged to prevent the paintings’ leaving the country. Several people die as Labiche and his two cronies execute a complex, spur-of-the-moment diversion of the train away from Germany and back to where the Allies are expected to come rescue the operation.

     It is a rather simplistic explanation of a film based on real events that endures more than two hours and has more twists and turns than can be counted. It is also packed with explosions and train crashes, all of which were really conducted as Director John Frankenheimer sought the most realistic film possible.

     The Train is full of beautiful deep-focus shots, complex tracking shots and suggestive camera focuses. The most poignant visual comes at the film’s close when the editing juxtaposes newly shot bodies strewn beside the railroad with those of the coffin-like crates holding the paintings, each marked with the name of the now-dead artist. This moment clearly asks the question posed by characters throughout the film: Are the paintings worth the lives lost to save them?

Source: TCM.com

Sahara

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Sahara (1943)

     It is not often other actors can stand up against the performances of Humphrey Bogart and come out on par, but in Sahara the entire cast manages to stand on level footing with the master. This flick was said to me Bogie’s favorite film and one can understand why. His superb performance and the fantastic story must have left droves of audiences feeling uplifted and patriotic as I did upon the credits’ rolling.

     Bogart is Sgt. Gunn who with “Waco” (Bruce Bennett) and Fred Clarkson (Lloyd Bridges) is in Libya in an American tank learning they must retreat to the south to avoid Nazi troops that have surrounded them. It is 1942 and the American soldiers are trying their hands at desert warfare by helping out their British allies. During the retreat, the men meet a stranded bunch of Brits and a Frenchman who agree to join them in their escape. Also en route are a Sudanese officer Tambul (Rex Ingram) who has an Italian prisoner by the name of Guiseppe, played by J. Carroll Naish. They too are taken along; although, Gunn at first plans to leave the prisoner behind in order to conserve water.

     The tank is attacked by a Nazi plane but the group shoots the aircraft down and take hostage the Nazi, Captain Schletow (Kurt Kreuger), who like a character in Lifeboat pretends to know no English. The troop detours toward one supposed well to retrieve water, but finds it dry. They head to another and here is where the remainder of the plot unfolds.

     The well is only dripping water at its bottom, so the men slowly gather as much water as they can before the source runs dry. The site also has a stone building offering great shelter and a decent cell for their two prisoners. By this point Guiseppe has become quite likeable and even insults the German by explaining that Mussolini is not the genius Hitler is. He cannot convince his people as thoroughly of the virtue of his plight. Guiseppe explains that he partakes in the Italian army only because, with a wife and child, it is unwise for him to resist. He has no scruples with the soldiers that hold him hostage.

     The group is in trouble, however, when two German scouts show up at the site to check out the water supply. Waiving white flags, they confer with the Ally soldiers and have information pried from them in exchange for water. Gunn opts to tell the men there is more water than they can handle and that if they bring back their full 300-man army, the men can have all the water the want in exchange for food. This draws that brigade as the American/British/French group sets up to ambush the highly dehydrated men.

     By the time Sahara concludes, we  have lost nearly all our soldiers. What I found surprising is that the movie manages to sneak in little get-to-know-me moments throughout the picture so that we feel an emotional connection by the time each dies. Whether it be the passing of a five-dollar bill between friends or talk of family or one’s home town, all minor messages get through to us so that the audience has personal knowledge of each, without interrupting the plot to explain to us who each person is.

     Naish deserves special recognition for his role as the Italian prisoner. The man was far from Italian (a New York native of Irish decent) but was great with accents. You would never know he was not a native speaker of the language, especially since he mingles actual Italian in with the accented English he speaks. The part, which as I already mentioned is quite an endearing one, earned Naish an Oscar nomination for supporting actor.

     Sahara was based on an “incident” in a Soviet movie “The Thirteen” and was filmed in the deserts of California. Two thousand tons of sand were hauled in to allow for loose sand, and shadows were painted on hills to make them stand out. Visually, one truly does think the all-male cast is in the middle of thousands of miles-worth of desert.

  • Sahara is set for 10 p.m. ET Aug. 17 on TCM.

Sources: Ben Mankiewicz, TCM.com

The General

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The General (1927)

     I have spotted Buster Keaton in a number of talking pictures later in his career when he showed up as a supporting player, but I have now had my first silent Keaton experience –and it was a doozy. I have yet to really delve into the major comedy acts of the silent era, which is to say I have also only seen Charlie Chaplin in a speaking role. So to my slight surprise, I found The General to be supremely entertaining and funnier than I thought silents could really be.

     Keaton as Johnnie Gray, a southerner, operates a train engine called “The General” and has a girlfriend whom he might love second to his train. When the Civil War breaks out, girlfriend Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack), pushes Johnnie to, like her brother and father, enlist in the Confederate army. Seeking his gal’s approval, Johnnie races to the enlistment station and fights to be the first in line, but upon hearing he is a train engineer, those in charge think the small man would better serve the cause in his current position. Annabelle thinks her boyfriend is just a coward and a liar and so tosses him aside.

     Later, Union soldiers storm Johnnie’s train when all passengers have exited for a meal break, all except Annabelle, that is. So Johnnie chases after his engine on foot, on bicycle and on those little push carts that move on railroad tracks (whatever they’re called). He eventually reaches the next depot and calls the soldiers stationed there to hop on another train and chase after the enemy. Foolishly, Johnnie forges ahead with only one car attached to the engine, leaving the army behind. An absurd chase ensues with Keaton most famously sitting on his engine’s cow catcher and picking up large wooden debris from the tracks.

     When the Union soldiers discover Johnnie’s train is in fact only occupied by the one man, they laugh and stop for the night in the midst of some rain why Johnnie runs away to hide. Unfortunately, he hides in the home where the enemy soldiers will camp. It is only at this point that he even discovers Annabelle has been kidnapped. Heretofore he has just been trying to get his train back. So in the night, Johnnie and his gal escape into the rain and in the morning steal back “The General.” Now it is the northern army that is chasing Johnnie and a host of additional bad and good luck leads our hero to safety and to the South winning a battle against the North.

     Buster Keaton performed his own stunts, which in itself makes up a huge amount of this film’s appeal. All of his leaping, falling, climbing, and hauling of firewood is impressive. Obviously with a silent movie, the physical humor reigns supreme, but for some instances, Keaton makes us laugh just with the expression on his face.

     There is an impressive scene after Johnnie sets a bridge ablaze when the Union army’s train crosses it and the structure collapses into the river. The scene cost something like $42,000 to film and would remain as a tourist attraction in Oregon where the movie was filmed until the scrap metal remnants were collected for WWII efforts. The battle scene at the film’s end was also responsible for a fire that took over the surrounding woods. Keaton, who also directed, stopped filming so cast and crew could douse the blaze.

     Released in 1927, The General came out the same year as the first “talking picture”, The Jazz Singer. By 1929, the sound film era was truly in full swing, thus putting many movie stars unable to adapt to the new form out of work. Keaton, as I mentioned, was not one of them, although his parts would be much smaller as his career went on.

Sources: Bill Hader for TCM, TCM.com

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