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Movie Crash Course: The Docks of New York

I’ve not previously run into a film that felt this much like a Tom Waits song.

It’s called The Docks of New York, but the film is mostly set in one bar where two steamship stokers and their boss are spending their one night of shore leave.  I’m assuming simple chance (or plot convenience) has brought them all to the same place – which just so happens to be where the foreman, Andy, runs into his ex-wife Lu carousing with some of the sailors from another ship. They have a grumpy, but resigned, reunion.

Stoker Bill, meanwhile, is en route to the same bar when he sees a woman jump into the harbor in an attempt to drown herself. He jumps in to rescue her, and brings her to the bar – conveniently close by – for help. The barmaid hustles her to one of the rooms upstairs, Lu tagging along to play nursemaid.  But Bill is taken with the young lady (or at least her looks) and lingers in her room, wanting to help as well.

Our damsel in distress is Mae, a down-on-her-luck prostitute and barfly. She insists Bill should have let her drown, but he’s persuasive enough to let him show her a night on the town. “I can always make a hole in the water tomorrow night,” she says, shrugging.

Bill proceeds to wine and dine her – at least as far as one can in a dive bar – while also trying to talk her out of suicide.  She thinks she’s run-down? Well, he is too.  She’s done bad things?  Well, so has he. She thinks she’s ugly? Hell, no, she isn’t. Bill is so caught up in his mission – or captivated by Mae – that when she sighs that no one would love her for keeps, Bill blurts out that he’ll marry her, right then and there. Why not? When Mae scoffs, Bill doubles down – and gradually enlists the rest of the bar in the game. Someone drags the local preacher in to officiate, and the deed is done.

….And then the next morning, Bill gets cold feet. Mae wakes up as he prepares to do the walk of shame back to his boat, and he stammers out excuses – come on, she knew it was a game, wasn’t it?  Mae sheds a few tears, but lets him go, resigned to her fate.  Bill’s conscience bothers him all the way back to the ship. But meanwhile, Andy – who’s stayed behind, and also was checking Mae out – thinks he can step up now.  However, Lu has her own opinions about that…

The relationship between Lu and Mae, actually, is a lovely touch. The other characters and their stories all seem like stories I’ve heard before – the down-and-outs who find each other, the hooker with a  heart of gold, the rough-and-tumble sailor who finds love – but Lu’s story really caught my eye. She treats Bill and Mae’s “wedding” as a game, but like Bill, she’s been touched by Mae’s plight – and comes to treat her with genuine sisterly affection.

Reviews at the time seem to all have agreed: the performances were good, but ultimately it was a run-of-the-mill story with a far-fetched ending. Still, there are some nicely set-up shots that herald the days of film noir; Mae’s suicide attempt caught my eye particularly.  All you see at first is the water, then her reflection in it, then you see the reflection jumping.

The “life among the low-lifes” element is also safely titillating, but ultimately nothing earth-shattering.

Tom Waits would really have fun producing a remake of this, however.  Maybe he’d even take a cameo as the preacher.

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From The Projectionist’s Booth: A Policy Statement From the Movie Crash Course

The day I write this is about one month after we all first heard about the movie producer Harvey Weinstein’s decades-long habit of sexually harassing women. Over the course of that month, since the first allegations, over 75 women have come forward to say they faced inappropriate attention from Weinstein; another dozen have made the further claim that he went all the way into rape.  It is also two weeks since we heard similar allegations against the actor Kevin Spacey, with 13 people coming forward so far.  And just today, a friend of the late actor Corey Haim accused Charlie Sheen of sodomizing Haim on the set of his very first movie, when Haim was only 13.

Everyone has been horrified at these allegations – understandably so. The stories about Harvey Weinstein have sparked particular shock – the sheer number of cases prompted men to ask if the problem of sexual harassment has really been as rampant as all that, causing women to revive the existing “#metoo” hashtag and revive discussion on this issue yet again. Amongst my friends – many of which are theater professionals – the discussions have been especially harrowing, since some of us know others of us who have gone on to work in film – and have had their own stories to tell, or know people who’ve had stories. Spacey’s actions renewed the conversation yet further, and brought in a swath of other theater folk with yet more stories.  …For the record: I’m relieved to say that I never encountered any sexual harassment when I worked in theater (other kinds of gendered attacks are something else again, albeit on a minor scale). However, I’ve heard a story or two of people I’ve personally worked with later having sad stories of their own.

It’s making us all want to do something. Talking hasn’t worked in the past, and just ignoring it isn’t good – it’s just too big and shocking. We want to act somehow; maybe we can put Harvey Weinstein in a stockade and throw rotten eggplants at him or something.  But the only power this time is in the hands of the courts and all we can do is watch and wait for them to act.  Which somehow doesn’t feel like enough, so people are flailing a little and thinking of ways to act.  Donating to a charity, perhaps, or taking people on over on Twitter.

One really popular step has been the Public Boycott – a declaration that “that’s it, I’m never watching any of their movies again!”  Some people have been so shaken by the allegations that they realize they will never be able to see Kevin Spacey or Charlie Sheen, or watch anything with the Weinstein name on it, without remembering the allegations.  Those movies are forever tainted for them.  Others are more pragmatic – they don’t want to give Kevin Spacey money, and watching his movies gives him money.  Therefore, no more watching his movies. QED.  I also considered this step for a couple seconds, to be honest – but then realized that three of Kevin Spacey’s movies – The Usual Suspects, American Beauty and Se7en – are all on the master list of the Movies To See Before You Die.  And so is Platoon, featuring Charlie Sheen.

Hmm.

I’ve got a while to go before I get to these films; easily a few years. By the time I get there, no doubt whatever trial Kevin Spacey is facing will have run its course and whatever punishment he is charged with will be underway.  Same with Charlie Sheen, and almost certainly the case for Harvey Weinstein. I doubt I’ll be able to forget that these incidents happened, but the story will be further along – the wound will not be as fresh.  It may be okay.

However, the problem is that this is not a unique scandal for Hollywood.

  • The silent film star Errol Flynn was accused of statutory rape in 1943. He was acquitted, largely thanks to the assistance of public donations enabling him to hire really good lawyers.
  • Actress Tippi Hederen has stated that director Alfred Hitchcock sexually assaulted her during the filming of The Birds.
  • 1930s star Loretta Young’s career was tainted by scandal when she conceived a child out of wedlock. It wasn’t until 1998 that she finally revealed that the father had been Clark Gable – and it had been an instance of date rape.
  • European director Roman Polanski had sex with a 13-year-old at Jack Nicholson’s house at a party in the 1970s, was found guilty of statutory rape and fled the country – and has been a fugitive from justice to this day.
  • Shirley Temple even once had a producer expose himself to her when she was only twelve. Fortunately he didn’t touch her – by all reports her nervous giggles brought him to his senses and he buttoned back up.
  • Producer Louis B. Mayer was the Harvey Weinstein of his day, regularly propositioning actresses and pressuring them into sex – he once literally chased Jean Harlow around his office in an effort to seduce her. Mayer also would sit Judy Garland on his lap and had her sing so he could “study her technique” by placing his hands on her chest.
  • ….And then there’s whatever the hell is going on with Woody Allen.

If I wanted to boycott Kevin Spacey or Harvey Weinstein’s work, I’d have to also consider boycotting Errol Flynn’s, Alfred Hitchcock’s, Clark Gable’s, Roman Polanski’s, and Woody Allen’s as well.  And if I did – well, to be honest, that would knock out a huge swath of my list, and the Movie Crash Course would essentially be over.  So from a practical perspective alone it doesn’t really make sense to boycott these works.

But there’s an even better reason to keep watching them despite their creator’s foibles – and that is that none of their films were solely their work.  Scores of other artists were also involved in each of their films, most of them wholly innocent – some even their victims.  And they shouldn’t be punished.

Way back when I reviewed Birth of a Nation, I spoke of having wanted to see the 2016 film with the same name; director Nate Parker used the title for his story about the rebellion of the slave Nat Turner. I’d actually been looking forward to it prior to its release – not because I knew anything about Parker, but rather because of the actor Colman Domingo, who was also cast in the work.  Colman is one of my “I knew him before” stories; we worked on a play together in 2003, and I’ve been watching the growth of his career from the Facebook-friends-feed sidelines ever since. And during the building to the film’s release, Colman spoke with great pride and excitement about the film and his colleague’s work, and mentioned how eager he was for everyone to see it and give their feedback. But right before its release, a story re-surfaced from director Nate Parker’s past, concerning an allegation of a rape when he was in college.  The scandal irretrievably tarnished the film, and it died a quick death in theaters.

There is actually some debate about whether Nate Parker did or did not commit the crime of which he is accused. But one thing is certain – Colman did not do it. And yet it feels like Colman – as well as the rest of the cast and crew of that film – was being punished for Nate Parker’s actions. And it doesn’t seem like that helps – especially if any of the actresses in the film were themselves harassed by someone somewhere along the line.

So. I will not be boycotting any of Kevin Spacey’s films – because they’re not just Kevin Spacey’s films.  Instead, when I see The Usual Suspects, I’ll watch it for Gabriel Byrne and Benicio Del Toro.  I’ll be watching Thora Birch in American Beauty, and Brad Pitt in Se7en.  When I watch Platoon, I’ll be watching for Willem DaFoe instead of Charlie Sheen.  When I watch The Birds, I’ll be watching for Tippi Hederen instead of Hitchcock.  I’ll watch Gone With the Wind for Vivian Leigh’s sake instead of Clark Gable’s.  I’ll watch Annie Hall for Diane Keaton.  I’ll watch Rosemary’s Baby for Mia Farrow’s acting instead of Roman Polanski’s direction.

The biggest argument in favor of boycotting these films is that “you shouldn’t separate the art from the artist”. However, each film has more than one artist in it. I’ll simply watch for one of the others.

Movie Crash Course: The Kid Brother

So far we’ve had the Silent Film Comedy Stars version of Coke Vs. Pepsi in here, with me coming down on the side of Team Buster.  The Kid Brother introduces our R.C. Cola – Harold Lloyd.

Lloyd is pretty much doing the same thing Chaplin and Keaton did – setting up a simple scenario and using it as an excuse for a lot of gags.  In Lloyd’s case, rather than being a stoic like Keaton or a cuddly little tramp like Chaplin, Lloyd is more of a Horatio Alger go-getter – optimistic, ambitious, eager to please, ready to try new ideas.  In some respects, his optimism is a bit like Chaplin’s Little Tramp.  But where Chaplin had a sort of sentimental feel to his work, Lloyd’s work has more slapstick and hair-raising stuntiness – kind of like Buster Keaton, upon reflection.

Lloyd’s gags also seemed to spring organically from the plot.  In this Old-West tale, he is the youngest of the sheriff’s three sons – and considerably wimpier than his beefy brothers.  As a result, his father leaves him out of the heavy farmwork and family duties, saving the “women’s work” like laundry and housekeeping to him instead.  Lloyd’s “labor-saving” ideas for the chores are some of the film’s gags – like this hack for washing dishes.

Pa also leaves our hero behind when there’s a big town meeting to discuss building a dam on the creek. Lloyd consoles himself by putting on his father’s sheriff’s badge and playing a little wishful-thinking pretend – and that’s exactly when a traveling medicine show comes by, hoping to get a permit to set up in town for the night. Lloyd tries to tell them he’s not the sheriff – but the dancing girl catches his eye,and he forges his father’s name on the permit.

Of course his Pa finds out, and sends him to stop the show (“since you want to play sheriff so badly…”)  It…doesn’t exactly go to plan, and the show’s tent burns down.  But the dancing girl, who’s taken a shine to him too, is still in his corner.  And when calamity strikes Lloyd’s family, she encourages him to save the day.

I tried really hard to avoid mental comparisons to Keaton or Chaplin while watching this.   So many of Lloyd’s stunts seemed Keaton-esque, though, that I couldn’t avoid it. However, much of Keaton’s gags involved him trying to get out of trouble.  Lloyd has some of these as well, but also has a number of gags about clever solutions to problems – the dishes above, for one, or “disguising” himself as a woman by slipping a couple of curtain rings on his wrist.  In a scene on a wrecked pirate ship, he covers his tracks by putting his shoes on a monkey and setting it loose to create footsteps leading the opposite direction.

(For the record – you read that right, this is a film set in the Old West that also has a wrecked pirate ship and a monkey in it.  I have so many questions about that, you guys.)

Ultimately, which of the three was “better” is kind of beside the point.  They’re all good.  So I suppose it all comes down to what flavor of comedy you are looking for – the classic-Coke subtle sharpness of Buster Keaton, the Pepsi-charmingness of Charlie Chaplin, or the RC-Cola brash cleverness of Harold Lloyd.

Movie Crash Course: The Jazz Singer

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So this is a film whose reputation proceeded it.  Everyone knows this as “the first talkie”, many may have seen clips of Al Jolson singing “Mammy”.  You may even know of the plot because you’ve seen Neil Diamond’s remake (I did, and I was also really into the soundtrack album when I was about eleven).  So watching this was more of an academic exercise for me.

But just in case, a recap: The Jazz Singer is the tale of Jakie Rabinowitz, the son of a cantor on the Lower East Side. As a boy, his father is grooming him to serve as the synagogues next cantor, but Jakie’s heart is more into jazz and ragtime.  When his father catches him singing in a local beer hall, he drags him home and – while Jakie’s mother protests – whips him with his belt, and a defiant Jakie runs away.

Ten years later, Jakie is in San Francisco, and gets his big break when he sings at an amateur cabaret. Up-and-coming showgirl Mary Dale is in attendance – conveniently along with the producers of her current show – and they offer him a job with the company.  Under the name “Jack Robin”, Jakie’s star rises until he is given a lead role on Broadway alongside Mary.  He joyously returns to New York, and stops in to surprise the folks.  Mama is overjoyed to see him – but Papa is less so, and stubbornly throws Jakie out again, insisting Jakie is betraying his faith by shirking his duties as cantor.

Jakie copes by throwing himself into rehearsals, excitedly preparing for opening night. But the night of the final dress rehearsal, Mama desperately visits the theater with news – Papa is gravely ill, and will not be able to sing in the Yom Kippur service the following day.  Would Jakie consider skipping the show and singing himself, to make his dying father happy? Mary and the producers argue that the following day is the opening night, and skipping it would be career suicide.  …What on earth will Jakie do?

….As is no surprise, things are resolved at the end.  I rolled my eyes a bit over how conveniently they do, however; as well as how convenient was Jakie’s rise to fame.  The scenes with “rehearsals” and “performances” are all pretty unrealistic; I’ll grant I have a unique perspective as a former stage manager, but there were moments in the “final dress rehearsal” sequence that made me want to throw things (the rehearsal does not grind to a halt after the lead’s big number so everyone can crowd around and tell him how great he is!  It just doesn’t work that way!).

Apparently, though, this was a fairy-tale spin on the star Al Jolson’s own life. Like Jakie, Jolson was the son of a cantor who had emigrated from Lithuania to New York when Al was a boy. There is no record of Al’s father objecting to his career, however; he had already been on the vaudeville circuit for several years when aspiring writer Samson Raphaelson happened to catch one of his shows.  Raphaelson was captivated by Jolson’s style, immediately recognizing that he was singing “like a cantor”.  Subsequent chats with Jolson lead to Raphaelson first writing a short story inspired by Jolson’s story, and then the play which ultimately became The Jazz Singer.

And perhaps this is why the film’s depiction of Jewish characters was more sensitive than I was expecting. I was pleasantly surprised that Papa’s strict adherence to tradition was believable – he was strict, sure, but the film happily avoided depicting devotion as ignorance.  The Rabinowitz family is pretty up-to-date in terms of other habits. There’s a poignant scene midway through Jakie’s “rise to fame” when he takes time to attend a concert performance by another canter singing “Jewish Sacred Songs”, and spends several minutes sitting in an audience reverently listening to someone sing the Kaddish.  Even a “comic relief” running gag about presents people bring to Papa’s birthday party deals more with duplicate gifts than it does with “wow, they’re giving Papa weird things”.

….But on the other hand, two of Jolson’s big numbers have him in blackface.  It should be noted that this is a direct nod to Jolson’s own career – white performers in blackface were highly common in vaudeville at the time Jolson got his start, and Jolson was himself in blackface during the performance Raphaelson first saw.  Jolson was also an early fan of jazz and ragtime, and chose to use blackface as a way to sort of introduce them to white audiences.  However – even though Jolson apparently meant well, it’s still jarring to watch today.

(I was also surprised to note, during a post-film Youtube browse, that Neil Diamond included some blackface in his remake. It’s for a very different reason – but still feels  tacky.)

What this film is best known for, though, is the sound.  Other, earlier short films dabbled in using sound, as recording technology developed and improved. The Jazz Singer marked the first time it was used in a full-length film.  But it seems the producers hedged their bets a little, relying on intertitles for the dialogue throughout.  Instead, they used sound for all the songs – Jolson’s jazz performances, the Kaddish and the Kol Nidre in Papa’s synagogue.  There is some recorded dialogue = Jolson had a habit of chatting with the audience in between verses during his shows, and improvised some patter during the songs.

Everyone knows about the “you ain’t heard nothing yet, folks” line, but it was a rendition of “My Blue Heaven” sequence that had me riveted, delivered when a just-come-home Jakie is entertaining Mama.  Midway through the song, Jolson starts talking to Mama, played by actress Eugenie Besserer; the dialogue was wholly improvised, with Jolson promising her a series of lavish gifts.  Besserer says very little aside for flustered gasps and giggles (Jolson’s patter gets a little creepily flirtatious, given their characters’ relationship), and she doesn’t seem to have been miked well. But it felt real in a way that I haven’t yet seen in any of these films yet – simply because of the sound.

Movie Crash Course: October – Ten Days That Shook The World

Watching October was….interesting.

Sergei Eisenstein’s film was commissioned ten years after the conflict in 1917 which gave rise to the Soviet Union. I very briefly considered reading a simple history of events so I would have a better grasp of what I was watching, but ultimately went in blind; this was meant to be a propaganda film, I reasoned, and I thought a naïve outlook would let me see the propaganda for what it was.

Save a moment or so of confusion over names and people, this was largely the case.  Eisenstein has a really heavy hand with his message, using lots of pointed imagery and montages to drive home his points. I may not have ever heard of the pacifist “Menshevik” party, for example– an alternative party to the Bolsheviks in the initial Soviet Congress – but Eisenstein kept intercutting their words with shots of a team of effete harpers, so clearly I was meant to think their message was airy and fantastical.  I also may not have ever heard of Alexander Kerensky, an intermediary government leader in opposition to the Bolsheviks – but Eisenstein kept showing him posing next to statues of Napoleon, so I was definitely meant to think he was a power-hungry dude.

Eisenstein liked to use statues in his symbolism a lot here. In addition to the Kerensky/Napoleon montage, there’s also a sequence when he is assembling his ministers inside the Winter Palace and is compared to a clockwork peacock.  There’s another sequence where a group of women is being trained how to shoot rifles, under the watchful eye of a statue depicting a mother with a child taking its first steps.  The whole film starts with a bunch of peasants working together to pull down a statue of Tsar Nicholas IV.

The Nicholas statue makes a return during a sequence critical of the provisional government that initially took control of Russia, before the Bolsheviks.  All that actually happens is that the government rallies people to defend Petrograd “in the name of God and Country”.  But those title cards are intercut and mixed in with shots of St. Basil’s Cathedral and ornate statues of Jesus, giving way to shots of Buddha statues, Aztec idols, and suchlike, giving way to overly-ornate medals on various establishment generals’ shoulders and chests – culminating in a sequence of the Tsar Nicholas statue re-assembling itself.  “God and country”, Eisenstein is saying, is shorthand for “the status quo”.

In fact, let’s show you both those montages below – they both come one right after the other.

It’s striking imagery, to be sure. And it’s definitely clear what we are supposed to think of Alexander Kerensky (and also, what we are supposed to think of the General Korlinov they mention in that same sequence – whatever he did).

However – as effective as this film is at propaganda, it is pretty ineffective at storytelling. I grant that it was meant for an audience that already knew the events of October 1917, and knew who Korlinov and Kerensky and the Cossacks were, and what the ship named the Aurora did and why we should care.  But even the Soviets didn’t like it; critics panned its overly-stylized, gimmicky techniques, and the rest of the public just plain didn’t get it – they got the propaganda alright, just like I did, but they were looking for other things, like a plot.

And ultimately that’s where the propaganda falls flat.  I knew that I was supposed to think Kerensky was a sort of empty figurehead, but I wasn’t really given any indication as to why I should care what he did. Lenin was put forth as a super-cool guy, but his super-cool status seemed disconnected from anything else. There were a couple instances of thrilling heroic action sequences, but those were momentary, and moreover they spoke for themselves.  An early sequence of the provisional government squelching a rebellion is also haunting; the government shoots rioters and then raises a drawbridge to cut of their escape. Eisenstein takes pains to show us a couple of bodies stuck on the drawbridge, including one of a horse who was killed in the crossfire; the rising bridge leaves the horse pathetically dangling in midair for several minutes before it finally falls.

Those sequences speak for themselves, however. They didn’t need any still shots of statues of knights or whatever to underscore them.

So what to make of October?  Ultimate this was a very specific example of a specific filmmaker’s unique vision, and an example of how editing techniques can get an emotional tone across.  But in terms of being a complete film, it’s lacking.

Movie Crash Course – The Projectionist’s Most Wanted

Just finished watching the next film on the list, and I’m mulling it over a bit before my review. In the meantime, I’m going to start an appeal.

I’ve been getting my hands on everything thus far through a combination of Youtube, Netflix, and a classing movie streaming service called Fandor.com.  Thus far it’s been working out – most things are on Netflix’s DVD service, with a lot of the public-domain stuff uploaded onto Youtube.  A couple of things were Youtube-rentable.  Finally, Fandor has a couple of the artier things (I discovered them while trying to track down Prince Achmed), as well as some intriguing other things I’ll be looking into later.

But there are still some movies on my list that have fallen through the cracks.  Either they don’t seem to be on DVD, or the waitlist for the DVD is too long.  Or there is no Youtube upload.  Or it was too “mainstream” for Fandor.  Or…who knows.

So I’m starting a list of my Most Wanted Films – everything that I should have seen by now, if I were going in 100% chronological order, but haven’t found yet.  If anyone knows where I can find or stream a copy, do let me know!

  1. The Great White Silence (1924). This was a sort of found-footage documentary based on some film shot of English explorer Robert Scott setting off on his ultimately-doomed exploration of Antarctica. There was ostensibly a new restoration released in 2010, but I haven’t found it.
  2. The Thief of Bagdad (1924). An early Douglas Fairbanks silent film.  The waitlist for the DVD is so long Netflix doesn’t know when I’d get it.
  3. The Eagle (1925).  This is another long-wait from Netflix; starrting Rudolph Valentino.
  4. Napoleon (1927).  This is a serious long-shot – the original film was over five hours long, but other cuts of varying lengths may also exist. The only version I can find is over on the video site Daily Motion where someone has uploaded it in six separate pieces, and….er, I’d like to find a slightly more authoritative copy. (Or at the very least, something not on Dailymotion because I hate that thing.)
  5. The Crowd (1928). Yet another long wait from Netflix; one of the last silent films.

I will continue to update this list as I run into things that are tough to find, or as I find things on this list.  If anyone has any leads, please let me know!

Movie Crash Course: The General

Oh, Buster, you’ve let me down.

The General itself is a true-to-form Keaton picture, and yes, I did laugh in places, as I always do at Buster Keaton’s work now. In fact, a short while ago I’d have been totally fine with this.  The usual stuff is there – trying to impress a girl, the obstacle thrown into his path, daring stunts and hijinks ensue.  And he is is usual skilled self.

In this case, the premise is that Keaton is a young engineer on the train line between Tennessee and Georgia in 1861, equally devoted to both his favorite locomotive (this is actually the “General” of the title) and his girl, Annabelle, who lives in one of the towns on his usual route.

However, one afternoon as he is visiting her, her brother comes home with the news of the attack at Fort Sumter, and both father and son resolve to enlist and go to war. Keaton’s girl turns to him with starry eyes and says that he should enlist as well, and he dashes off to be first at the enlistment office – but when they learn he is an engineer, they turn him down, believing him more useful in his civilian position.  As he dejectedly walks away he passes Annabelle’s father and brother, standing in line to enlist, and they try to wave him into line with them; he just shakes his head and walks off. They interpret this as cowardice on his part, and when Annabelle hears their opinion, she breaks up with Keaton.

That’s just the setup. The meat of things happens a year later, with Annabelle boarding his train to visit her father in a military hospital. But unbeknownst to them both, a team of enemy spies has secretly boarded the train, and when Keaton stops the train for a lunch break en route, they sieze the locomotive and one of its freight cars – with Annabelle unexpectedly inside, hunting for something in her luggage – and take off, headed for their camp.  Keaton spots them and gives chase.

Cue the hijinks.  Which in this case involve pursuit by handcar, mishaps with a cannon, and rides on the cowcatcher.  There’s even a second stretch of hijinks after Keaton has managed to overhear an enemy plot, rescue Annabelle and reclaim his engine, and is racing back home ahead of the enemy, trying to save Annabelle and warn the home troops in time.  And it ends happily, with Keaton rewarded for his bravery and Annabelle happily back by his side.

Keaton based this on an actual incident from the Civil War, in which a team of Union spies actually did sneak onto a train and hijack it during a meal break, destroying the tracks in their wake and thus severing an important communication and freight line for the Confederates.  But when dramatizing this story, Keaton made an executive decision.

He made the Confederates the good guys in this movie.

Not for political reasons, most likely. In fact, Keaton was most likely just responding to the collective opinion of the day – that the Confederates had been little more than underdogs, ultimately doomed and harmless, who’d just made a mistake.  Making the underdogs the heroes of his comedy would be funnier, he reasoned, so instead of playing one of the Union spies and telling the story from that angle, he cast himself as an underdog Confederate wannabe who wins at the end.  But this was still only a mercenary outlook at worst, rather than a sympathy for the south; but there isn’t a filmmaker alive who hasn’t at least considered giving the public what they want so they can sell more tickets.

Still, watching this film in this year, after this year’s news events, made me pretty uneasy, especially when Keaton tags along with the Confederate Army towards the end, riding bravely into battle behind the Stars-and-Bars.  He even serves as flagbearer during the ensuing clash at one point – it’s a moment played for laughs, still, with Keaton marching along a bluff carrying the flag and inadvertently stepping on the commander’s toe or something.  But – it was Buster Keaton carrying the Stars and Bars. And I didn’t like seeing it.

The shifting impact of history ultimately wasn’t anything Keaton couldn’t control, and I get that.  It isn’t anything he could have forseen either.  The only thing a filmmaker can do – or any artist can do, for that matter – is work with the knowledge that they have available to them at any given moment.  And at the particular moment Keaton was filming, the Confederates were being seen as noble but doomed.  The very statues that we are protesting today were just being put up at about the time Keaton was filming.  The NAACP was just getting off the ground, Plessy V. Ferguson was the rule of the day, and it was still four years before the Scottsboro Boys ran into their own trouble on a train.  Yes, Keaton could have made a principled stand, but he would have been a very rare individual indeed if he had; he may have very well felt that by choosing to not make his heroes plantation owners, he was taking a sympathetic stance.

And yet I still couldn’t get away that this cultural narrative later lead to Gone With The Wind and then to Brown V. Board of Education, and then to Selma, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and then Dylann Roof, and then to Richard Spencer and his thugs in Charlottesville.  Keaton couldn’t have forseen that in 1927.  But those are all things I have seen in 2017.  And just like a filmmaker can only bring the knowledge they have at a given moment, a spectator also carries their own baggage, from their own era and their own time.  And that can always affect how you see something.

Sorry, Buster.  It’s not you, it’s me.