Monday, March 28, 2011

The Gold Rush

Year: 1925
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 58
Writer/Director: Charlie Chaplin
Star: Charlie Chaplin, Georgia Hale, Mack Swain

Ah, Charlie, why’d you have to go muck up a good thing? This review comes after a viewing of Chaplin’s 1942 re-tinkering of his 1925 “The Gold Rush,” leaving it, I suspect, much shorter, meeker and just a little annoying. In addition to losing every title card and adding a completely unnecessary, annoying narration, Chaplin also uses the narration to convince us that Georgia, the film’s love interest and a nasty woman, is actually a kind-hearted dame. All of this is conjecture, of course, since I have never seen the original. If I’m wrong, please tell me.

The films tells a story concerning (unsurprisingly) the Klondike gold rush. We first see Chaplin’s Tramp character adrift in the snow, searching for gold and trying to keep track of his location with a paper compass. Yes, you read that right, a paper compass. He finds a cabin, falls in with a wanted murderer and a Prospector (Mark Swain), and the three try to outlast the storm…and each other.

Basically, as long as the Tramp remains in the cabin the film is near-perfect. Despite the heinous narration (which I muted at certain points), the ingenuity of the humor here remains amazing viable today. Yes, Chaplin eating his shoe and appearing like a chicken to the Prospector have lost some of their spark since they’ve been ripped-off so many times in lesser films, but there is so much more to love. The climax of the film, which has the house literally blown away, left teetering on the edge of a cliff, ranks up there with the tightrope walk in “The Circus,” the boxing match in “City Lights” and getting lost in the gears in “Modern Times” as one of the very best comedy routines of all time, not just within the Chaplin canon. The audience knows before the two characters that the house is halfway off a cliff, so their movement within becomes a fantastic ballet of suspense and laughs. Finally the house begins tipping and the men desperately try to find a way to climb over each other to get out of the house before it falls. Moments like that are film magic, plain and simple.

I’m surprised the film gets so much mileage out of its concept. The sight of the iconic Tramp character, who we always expect to see on city streets or wandering on the waterfront, making his way through snowdrifts, is hilarious. But then we wonder how many more laughs we can get from that gag. Ten minutes in, we realize how easily the Tramp has become part of this world, and how Chaplin hadn’t even changed the style of his humor, but instead made the really odd locations work for him.

Which makes the appearance of that damn Georgia (Georgia Hale) all the more annoying. She’s a barmaid at the local pub, and the Tramp is smitten with her the moment he sees her. This is a shame because she only dances with him because she’s trying to make another man jealous. And she and her friends only treat him nicely because they are playing a game with him. She’s kind of a witch, all things considered, and she doesn’t deserve The Tramp. The Blind Girl and the Gamin saw the Tramp’s heart and so there was a real attraction there. Here the romance is forced at best, disgusting at worst.

To make matters worse, Chaplin’s narration seems to be trying to make excuses for her. When Georgia and her friends come to taunt the Tramp at a house he is taking care of, the narrator insists it’s not her fault she is that way, it’s because of where she works. Sorry, Mr. Chaplin, but a douchebag is a douchebag, no matter how many excuses you make for that person.

Because of this, the closing passages to “The Gold Rush” feel…odd. In the first place, the Tramp and his friend become rich and famous, which feels a bit at odds with the character we’ve come to know in all his other work. In “City Lights” and “The Kid,” Chaplin really worked to attain his happy ending (neither of which involved money), but here all he does is wander around in the snow with a dude who may or may not want to eat him until they come upon gold. The way Chaplin goes about “redeeming” Georgia is fine, I suppose, but doesn’t make up for the way she treated him all throughout the film.

When the film moves its focus from the Tramp’s love interest, it works in all the right ways. We always remember the big moments in Chaplin’s films, but it’s really the subtleties that make the movies work as a cohesive whole between those big moments. Look here at a small scene when the Tramp, cold and hungry, lies down outside a cabin door and pretends to be frozen solid in order to gain entrance and partake in the cabin owner’s coffee and beans. It’s a funny bit, but what really makes it work is that Chaplin asks for sugar cubes before drinking his coffee and salt for his beans. There’s another moment, earlier in the film, where the Tramp is trapped in that cabin with the Prospector, who is at this point almost delirious with hunger. The dog in the cabin walks outside and the Prospector follows…and he’s the only one who returns. Chaplin doesn’t mug for the camera or put a huge emphasis on this, instead letting the scene breathe just long enough to create the laughs of recognition.

By the way, the dog wasn’t dead.

This is the third Chaplin film on the AFI Top 100, and it doesn’t reach either the emotional or comedic highs “City Lights” or “Modern Times” do. But then again, there are probably only a dozen or so films that do reach that pinnacle. I discovered Chaplin through writing these articles and, in an odd way, silent cinema. I remember watching some silents as a child, but hadn’t revisited that part of cinema in over a decade. Now I’m ecstatic that I have most of Buster Keaton and all of Harold Lloyd to discover for myself…not to mention all the fantastic dramas that I was so unconsciously dismissive of before. And as for Chaplin, he has yet to disappoint. I’ve already taken in the greatness of “The Kid,” “The Circus” and “Limelight” but have so much more to look forward to. I’ve already ordered “Monsieur Verdoux” and “A Woman of Paris” and eagerly anticipate the Criterion release of “The Great Dictator.”

That’s part of what this list is about, after all. Sure, it’s “ranking” great movies, but it also strives to open up new avenues of film for those who might otherwise miss out on it. I can’t imagine my life without Chaplin now, and even though “The Gold Rush” isn’t my favorite of his films, it might be yours.

My Score (out of 5): ****

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Year: 1937
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 34
Writer: Ted Sears, Richard Creedon, Otto Englander, Dick Rikard, Earl Hurd, Merrill De Maris, Dorothy Ann Blank, Webb Smith
Director: David Hand, William Cottrell, Wilfred Jackson, Larry Morey, Perce Pearce, Ben Sharpsteen
Star: Adriana Caselotti, Lucille La Verne, Roy Atwell

It’s often remarked that animated adaptations of fairy tales “Disney-fy” them, meaning that all the darkness and death have been removed from the story in order to make them more family friendly films. Obviously, these people have never seen the Walt Disney produced “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” Not only do you have the poisoned apple and the glass coffin, but you have horrifying trips into a haunted wood, psychedelic experiences of black magic, a hunter who guts a pig, stuffs its heart into a box and then pretends he tore the heart out of the title character. Sure, the film doesn’t include the Brothers Grimm’s original ending, where the Evil Queen is forced to wear hot metal shoes and dance until she dies, but in this version she is struck by lightning, falls off a cliff hundreds of feet into a ravine and is then squashed by a falling boulder. To me, it’s a toss-up which one is more grotesque.

The film begins with Princess Snow White thrown in rags and forced to clean her evil stepmother’s palace. She dreams of finding someone to love, and a convenient Prince (though he is never identified as such) just happens to be riding by on horseback and instantly falls in love with her. Her stepmother, the Queen, is obsessed with being the most beautiful woman in the land, so instead of forcing unnecessary plastic surgery on her step-daughter that would hinder her beauty, she orders her Huntsman to murder Snow White and return with her heart in a really nice box. The Huntsman allows Snow White to escape and she happens upon the house of the Seven Dwarfs.

Though it would be over a decade before her rise to fame, Snow White sounds and carries herself almost exactly like Marilyn Monroe. Though she doesn’t have the bust-line Monroe did (family film, people! Family film!), Snow White wanders through scenes shaking her booty and waving her arms randomly. In other words, she carries off being an idiot extremely well. She might get first billing in the title, but this movie is really about the seven dwarves she meets and the queen she shares a single scene with.

And that Queen…holy crap. We first see her draped in black, cloth covering almost every inch of her body, save for her face (her hair is covered as well), and the animation reveals subtleties in her expressions that even modern animation can’t quite match. Her castle is huge and empty—the only characters she communicates with are the Huntsman and the mirror that will never tell her what she wants to hear, which of course makes her need to go back for more. Here is a woman so obsessed with murdering her (let’s face it) simple-minded stepdaughter that she will literally strip herself of her most coveted possession, her beauty, to achieve her goal.

Those rascal-y Seven Dwarfs get the most screentime here, and you can tell that the filmmakers were having a fun time bringing them to life. Too much fun, it seems. Alas, their scenes today lag and linger much longer than they should. They think Snow White is a ghost. They wash their hands. They dance. They play music. They look for places to sleep. They say “Heigh Ho!” quite a bit (okay, that’s enjoyable). Looking at the film today, you can tell the animators are going wild, but there’s so little substance to the scenes that they can’t help but feel thin and a tad tedious.

The film is still surprisingly smart in how it approaches storytelling from time to time. Yes, it’s a film of clichés and big sweeping plot development (who is that Prince guy again and where is he for most of the movie?), but that doesn’t mean that the slew of writers who worked on it didn’t know how to tell a good story. From the first time the dwarves encounter Snow White, Grumpy is (unsurprisingly) the most vocal about not trusting her and not allowing her into their home. Moments before the Evil Queen arrives to feed Snow White the poisoned apple, Snow White kisses the dwarves goodbye and we realize that she has finally won over Grumpy. Even he loves her. The family is complete. That makes what follows even more heartbreaking for viewers, especially because the very last thing she does is finish a gooseberry pie made especially for Grumpy.

But let’s face it, the movie’s real triumph is the world it creates. The forest Snow White races through ranks right up there with the ferry ride in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” as one of the most terrifying sequences in a family film. The Dwarves’ home is filled to the brim with beautiful touches, and the animation is flawless throughout. Call me old fashioned, but this is a damn fine animated film that looks better than the CGI-worlds we so often find spewed before us in current animated movies.

“Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” isn’t the best animated movie produced by Walt Disney Studios. My money is on “Beauty and the Beast,” but how can you discount other masterpieces like “Fantasia,” “Pinocchio,” “The Little Mermaid,” “Cinderella” and “Sleeping Beauty”? To me, any of those films are more emotionally resonant and have more well-defined characters. And yet there’s something downright haunting about seeing where it all began and seeing Walt Disney and his amazingly talented creative team make such a good movie right out of the gate. The other films I’ve listed might have improved on the intricacies, but their broad strokes remain firmly reminiscent of, and in debt to, this film.

My Score (out of 5): ****

Sunday, March 20, 2011

On the Waterfront

Year: 1954
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 19
Writer: Budd Schulberg
Director: Elia Kazan
Star: Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb

We’ve seen uplifting sagas like “On the Waterfront” hundreds of time before in the movies—there’s something so encouraging about seeing a flawed individual overcome tremendous odds in order to restore justice that it has become part of our consciousness. The AFI top 100 is filled with them, from “To Kill A Mockingbird” to “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” to “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and probably a dozen others. Stories like these are especially important today, where headlines like “Corporate Corruption” or “Bail-Out” are seen more often than sunny days in Los Angeles. We desperately want these greedy men and women, with their endless pockets and swarmy lawyers, held accountable for their actions, and the thought that an average joe like Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) could overcome such vast odds gives us hope. Fleeting hope, but hope nonetheless.

“On the Waterfront” is a very good example of this type of film, with Terry beginning the film an enforcer for a corrupt union boss named (seriously) Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) and ending the film a mouthpiece for the hardworking men and women of the union. There’s a dame who helps open his eyes to how wrong he has been (Eva Marie Saint), a priest who only wants to help (Karl Malden) and a familiar connection to the corrupt bosses in Terry’s brother Charley (Rod Steiger) being Johnny’s lawyer.

All of this reeks of cliché and, to a point, it can’t escape it. And yet writer Budd Schulberg and director Elia Kazan succeed in creating more depth here than other films of its type. Brando gets all the attention for his fascinating, multi-layered performance and he certainly creates a wonderful emotional anchor for the film. Terry, a former boxer, has always communicated best with his fists but, in this circumstance, is powerless to stop Johnny Friendly unless he uses his voice to indict him. He’s certainly not stupid, but he’s simple. He hates emotions and hates it even more when they begin to affect him. But he’s emotionally (there’s that word again) stronger than he seems, and his final, torturous walk that closes the film is rescued from eye-rolling because of how involved we are in Terry’s character.

With Brando so obviously shining, it’s easier to forget about the hugely talented ensemble who make the film more multi-layered than you expect. Kazan always filled his films with really interesting character actors, and “On the Waterfront” is no exception. Look at what Malden does with Father Barry, a thankless role that could have come across as one-dimensional dreck. Malden gives Father Barry an inner-strength and makes us know he is thinking, even in the scenes where he does not speak, and his savage indictment of the union bosses while standing over the body of his friend (and having eggs thrown at him!) is one of the high-points of the film.

Ditto for Steiger. When we first see Charley in the film we suspect we know what kind of character we’ll see, but then Steiger surprises us by veering away from cliché whenever possible. Everyone remembers Brando’s “I coulda been a contenda!” speech in the taxi, but that’s not the heart of the scene: It’s when Charley pulls the gun on his brother and then chooses to let Terry go even though he knows it is damning him.

Schulberg has a field-day with the dialogue here, which has all the zingers we’d expect from the best gangster villains, especially some early business about a canary, but the best line comes from Saint’s Edie to Father Barry: “What kind of saint hides in a church?” Much of Saint’s performance has sadly aged worse than the rest of the film, but her resilience in this early scene after the death of her brother still strikes precisely the right note. Most spectacularly, Schulberg gives Terry a voice that is never too slow and yet never too all-knowing. His final speech to Johnny isn’t an exquisitely thought out barn burner—it’s just a few simple lines screamed at Johnny that feel true to Terry’s character. That Schulberg didn’t feel the need to indulge what could have been a very dangerous ploy writers often concede to makes his script all the more successful.

If only Leonard Bernstein’s score for the film were as successful. For such an accomplished composer, the score here telegraphs every emotion far too much and is cranked up way too loud on the soundtrack of the film. In fact, the first five minutes of the film is almost torturous, with the music distracting almost completely from the dialogue and visuals.

Kazan made a career out of films that were about “something.” It never seemed to be enough for him to settle for a simple character drama or flashy thriller—there always had to be deep underlying morality plays or “big” questions that haunt viewers long after the film was over. He only has one other film on the AFI Top 100, “A Streetcar Named Desire,” but has several other films that could or should be. To me, the biggest oversight is the lack of the masterpiece “East of Eden,” but also there’s “Baby Doll,” “A Face in the Crowd,” “Panic in the Streets,” “Splendor in the Grass” and the unfortunately-mostly-forgotten “Gentleman’s Agreement.” I’ve always felt that, at his best, Kazan represented the perfect meshing of attention to acting and visual pizzazz, instead of tipping toward one or the other.

“On the Waterfront” is, understandably, his most raw film, and because of that he allows the tone of the film to sometimes feel out of place. Most of the movie is a perfect meshing of gangster dramas and character ensemble, but at times (I’m thinking particularly here of the assault on the church) it tips over into unnecessary melodrama, especially considering how tonally reserved most of the movie is. But there are many moments here that a lesser filmmaker could have botched. Look at Terry’s final, bittersweet-yet-triumphant walk across the dock. A lesser film would just show him walking, but Kazan cuts to his warped point-of-view, showing just how difficult the walk is for him and just how triumphant the moment really is. Terry is, after all, a hero, but the magic of this film is that his heroism sneaks up on you.

My Score (out of 5): ****

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


Year: 1997
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 83
Writer/Director: James Cameron
Star: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Billy Zane

“Titanic” is proof that there is such a thing as good melodrama and that sentimentality can be deeply affecting when done well. Here is a film filled with tremendous special effects that remains grounded because we believe in its central love story.

Everyone knows the story of the “unsinkable” Titanic, and it has been filmed numerous times at varying levels of quality, ranging from overblown tedium in the 1953 Barbara Stanwyck vehicle to gripping realism in “A Night to Remember.” This version begins in the present, with an undersea explorer (Bill Paxton) searching for a fabled blue jewel called, rather obviously, the Heart of the Ocean. They don’t find the jewel, but do discover a charcoal drawing of a nude woman wearing it that is dated the night the ship sank. An elderly woman named Rose (played in the present by Gloria Stuart and by Kate Winslet in flashbacks), claims she is the woman in the photo and offers to tell her story.

Rose boarded the Titanic trapped in a loveless relationship with her fiancé Cal (Billy Zane doing a great tip of the hat to Orson Welles) and, on the night she intended to commit suicide, was saved by a spirited wanderer named Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio). Rose is first-class, Jack is third-class, and yet first they form a friendship that leads to intense passion and romance. Even if you have not seen the film, you are familiar with the sight of Jack and Rose kissing on the front of the ship at sunset, and it is indeed one of the greatest romantic moments in all of film. What surprised me, visiting the film again after a decade, is how beautifully Cameron sets up this moment. One of the best moments in the film is a quiet one, without any of James Horner’s great music or any of the numerous impressive special effects, and that is the moment Jack and Rose discuss her attempted suicide. They dance around each other in their dialogue, Jack unafraid to speak his mind and Rose unsure of how to speak hers after a lifetime of suppressing her voice. Another splendid contrast between their lifestyles comes first when we see Jack attend a dinner in first class (Cal invites him as a “prize” for rescuing Rose) and later when we see Rose dance and drink cheap beer in third class. I cannot underline enough how easy and unforced the chemistry between DiCaprio and Winslet is here, and how quickly we accept their love despite the class difference between them.

A bit more hazy is the relationship between Cal and Rose. Yes, Cameron establishes early that, from Rose’s perspective, it’s just for the money. And yet, with the way Cal is characterized in the first half of the film, I cannot fathom him being attracted to Rose or choosing her as a mate.

As both a screenwriter and director, Cameron takes great pains to paint around the edges. He fills the screen with great character actors (most notably Kathy Bates as the unsinkable Molly Brown and Victor Garber as the soul-heavy ship designer) that make huge impressions in their few lines so that, when they either die or find salvation in the film’s second half, we feel something.

Structurally, “Titanic” is as close to perfection as any film I have seen. In the frame story, Cameron ingeniously shows us the exact circumstances under which the ship sank in a video Rose watches. Everything he introduces in the present is paid off in the past, and every character, subplot and idea he introduces before the iceberg is struck is paid off dramatically. Moments before the ship finally goes under, Rose suddenly realizes “Jack, this is where we first met!” and you can’t help but getting goosebumps. Yes, some of the dialogue is less than fantastic and a few modern beats (Rose flipping someone the bird) feel out of place, but these are easily forgivable.

For me, the reason the disaster genre (and I’m not reducing “Titanic” to a mere “disaster” movie here because it’s much more than that) remains so viable when done well (“The Poseidon Adventure,” “Airport”) is because after characters encounter the impossible in their everyday lives and then have time to process what is going on and react to their probable deaths in very different, very “human” ways. In the last hour of “Titanic” we see acts of great humanity, but mostly we are shaken by the horrors. The third class is literally locked below deck until they die. The first class lifeboats refuse to return to pick up survivors. It’s sickening, and not only do we wonder how we would act in those situations, but the movie has made us care about these characters as human beings. The fact that not a single character we meet from the third class survives is heartbreaking, as is the fact that unlikable characters Cal and Rose’s mother get away so easily. It’s unfair, and all the more impactful because of it.

Cameron (who was also one of the three editors on the film) is amazingly skillful at making the sinking of the ship both sickening and gorgeous. The first reveal of the sinking ship, seen after an emergency flair is fired off, is beautiful, and the way Cameron comes up with new ways to show the Titanic going down is always inventive. It’s visceral, and the special effects throughout are flawless. In fact, I’d wager that the effects seen here could not be done better today, no matter how much technology has advanced since 1997.

Of course, all that would be moot if we didn’t care about the sinking on a human level. Though “A Night To Remember” is a great film, it lacks a soul thanks to its straightforward presentation. Ultimately, “Titanic” offers us the definitive version of the story because it touches our hearts while offering us plenty of suspense and eye candy that is only underlined by the inevitability of the circumstances.

As the movie draws to a close, the elderly Rose says the line, “He saved me…in every way a person can be saved.” After returning the Heart of the Ocean to the sea, Rose dies quietly in her sleep and we follow her soul down into the ruins of the sunken ship, but we see it anew. All of the dead passengers wait for her, including Jack, who kisses her on the grand staircase. In most other films, that dialogue and finale would be cheesy, but “Titanic” earns them. It’s the rarest of spectacles—an uncynical love story where the grand special effects never outshine the film’s soul.

My Score (out of 5): *****

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The General

Year: 1926
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 18
Writer: Al Boasberg, Clyde Bruckman, Buster Keaton
Director: Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman
Star: Buster Keaton, Marion Mack, Jim Farley

The more real the comedy is, the more awesome it becomes. “The General” is a comedy of moments, each one as real and visceral as the next. There is a never a scene we doubt that Buster Keaton is performing hugely-dangerous stunts on a real, moving train, and because of that the film reaches moments of transcendence. You can’t help but hit the rewind button on your remote dozens of times because you just can’t believe what he pulled off this time.

“The General” springs to life when its hero, Johnny Gray (Keaton) is aboard his train. The film revolves around two very intricate chase scenes involving multiple trains, most notably The General of the title, of which Keaton is the engineer, and as long as we are on those trains, the movie is close to flawless. It’s when the characters place foot on land that the movie goes off the rails (yes, that will be the last train metaphor of this review. Hopefully.)

The film takes place during the Civil War, and we are informed via title cards that Johnny has two great loves in his life: his train and Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack). Johnny tries (unsuccessfully) to enlist in the Confederate Army to impress Annabelle, who dismisses him because he doesn’t have a uniform. One day both Annabelle and The General are stolen by Union soldiers and Johnny immediately gives chase.

Waitaminute…let me back up. Yes, our hero is desperate to enlist in the Confederate Army. And we see him fighting and winning battles for the South. So basically…he’s fighting for slavery. Okay, as much as I try to avoid research and other critical analysis of the films I discuss in order to approach the AFI Top 100 as freshly as possible, there’s been so much written about the film that knowledge of how it came to be is almost unavoidable in film circles. I have never seen an article or even a part of the article commenting on the fact that we are supposed to be rooting for slavery here. Yes, I know it seems like Johnny is only trying to enlist because he’s trying to impress Annabelle. And yes, I know there are more racist films in the era (“Birth of a Nation” anyone?) and after (the pre-code musical “Wonder Bar” featured a chorus of a hundred men in blackface going to heaven to frolic in, among other things, a forest of pork chops. Seriously.) And I know it’s supposed to be a lighthearted comedy. But my gut doesn’t care…when Johnny wins a big battle for the Confederates and is appointed a Lieutenant, it just doesn’t feel right. Even though the film is based on a true story, how difficult would it have been to switch Johnny’s affiliations to the Union? Hollywood makes much bigger changes to reality than that without blinking.

Moving away from my gut and back to the film…many of the comedy beats within the two chase sequences are close to perfection. As written previously, the stunts and intricate gags are jaw-dropping, as when we see Keaton, who is seated on the front of the moving train, throw a perfectly aimed gigantic railroad tie at another one lying on the rails blocking the train’s progress. The tie hits the other and both fall from the rails. If it missed, both ties would have inevitably hit the front of the train and probably crushed Keaton. In this stunt and every other, it’s perfectly obvious it’s Keaton doing all the work, which just adds to the coolness factor.

You would think that the fact that this is a train chase would limit the creativity of the action, but the opposite is true. In fact, I’d venture to say that just about everything that can be done with trains is done in “The General.” The trains switch tracks numerous times like toys on a track, ram one another, come apart, push flaming cars, race forward and backward…and that list barely scratches the surface. My favorite gag comes when Johnny lights a canon his train is pulling, aiming it to fire past his train and hit the Union train in front of his. As he finishes and crawls away, the canon begins to shift because of the movement and aims itself directly at Keaton. And then, of course, there is the phenomenal image of one of the trains (a real train, not a miniature) falling from a bridge into a river below.

Keaton manages to do all of this with a straight face. He never overreacts, which underlines the moments subtly instead of lessening their impact by spotlighting them. It’s a shame the person Johnny is doing all this for is such a loser. Annabelle is nothing more a wet rag, non-entity for the entire film. We aren’t given any reason to believe in Johnny’s love for her, and then when he rescues her from Union forces she does nothing but screw up and almost get Johnny killed over and over. First she gets caught in a bear-trap (one of the only comedic misfires in the film), then drives the General away before Johnny can get back on it on multiple occasions. You want to cheer when Johnny finally has his fill and throws a log at her while they are trying to set a booby-trap. This is a major hurdle that the film cannot cross—when the couple gets together at the end you don’t feel like cheering: You wish Johnny would drop the dead weight and find a real woman.

It’s almost unfair to compare Keaton with Charlie Chaplin (even though it’s done all the time) because their comedy styles are so different. It’s not the comedy that’s missing from “The General,” but the soul, and that’s what every major Chaplin film has in spades. Annabelle can’t even come close to competing with the Blind Girl from “City Lights” or the Gamin from “Modern Times.” With the heart of the film missing, all you have is a comedy of really astonishing moments with little underneath them.

My Score (out of 5): ***1/2