While Waiting Out The Pandemic, It's Worth A Watch Of These Classic Films

Mar 19, 2020
Originally published on March 21, 2020 12:46 am

Critics are often asked "What's your favorite movie?" — and most of us have learned to deflect the question.

If you see a few hundred films a year, "favorite" is a moving target. Stiil, when pressed, I do have a ready answer: Buster Keaton's silent, Civil-War comedy The General.

The 1926 black and white epic takes its title from the name of the locomotive that is Buster's chief love in the film (apart from his fiancée). When his beloved General is stolen by Yankee spies — with the fiancée (Marion Mack) aboard — he gives chase in another locomotive, which leads to all kinds of crazy.

American actor Buster Keaton clinging to the front of a train in a still from the 1926 film, 'The General.'
Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Keaton's brilliance with physicality meant the film was crammed with acrobatic stunts, daredevil rescues, miracles of comic timing accomplished with full-size trains, including the single most spectacular shot in silent-film history — a bridge collapse that left a real steam locomotive lying deep in the Oregon gorge where the sequence was filmed. It stayed there for decades, becoming a minor tourist attraction until it was carved up for scrap metal during WWII.

Being silent, The General doesn't have a soundtrack, though its video release has three different orchestral scores. Still you can't beat the way I saw it with about a thousand fans in Salt Lake City a few years back. As a fundraising treat, NPR member station KUER had arranged for The General to be shown in the Capitol Theatre, a grand old movie palace built in the 1920s. And admission was at 1920s prices: 25 cents a ticket.

Organist Blaine Gale was at the keyboard of what Radio West host Doug Fabrizio referred to as "the Mighty Wurlitzer," Buster Keaton was on screen in a silvery, digitally restored print, and in no time, a thousand 21st-century moviegoers were shrieking with laughter. Stream it, and you'll see why.

The General was made 64 years after the real-life Civil War raid, the Great Locomotive Chase, it's based on. And 63 years after The General, Spike Lee made a ferocious comedy that deals with fallout from the Civil War.

In Do the Right Thing, Lee looked bluntly — and for much of the film, hilariously — at racial prejudice. In a story set in Brooklyn's Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood, Lee plays Mookie, a pizza delivery guy who does not get along with his boss's racist son, Pino (John Turturo).

Pointing out that Pino's favorite basketball player is Magic Johnson, his favorite movie star is Eddie Murphy and his favorite rock star is Prince, Mookie wonders if Pino, "deep down inside," wishes he were black. When Pino snorts derisively, Mookie responds, "Laugh if you want to. Y'know your hair is kinkier than mine."

Tension in Do the Right Thing escalates as Lee, who wrote, directed, and produced it — in addition to starring in the film — tightens the screws between laughs.

American film director and actor Spike Lee, left, and actor Danny Aiello on the set of their 1989 film 'Do the Right Thing.'
Anthony Barboza / Getty Images

At the preview I attended in 1989, an African-American woman behind me spent much of the evening amen-ing the characters as if she were at church, and a white student nearby spent the evening seething at every "amen." At the climax of the film, he hissed at her to be quiet, starting an argument that only stopped because violence erupted onscreen.

A sharper mirror for Lee's point, I couldn't imagine then — still can't.

Lee's purpose here is to start conversations, not fights. I've seen Do the Right Thing quite a few times, and boy does it hold up.

But the film I've seen the most tackles difference differently. The comedy Harold and Maude is about age, not race, and involves a 19-year-old (Bud Cort) who's forever faking his own suicide (elaborately and to the immense annoyance of his unflappable mother), and an in-love-with-life 79-year-old (Ruth Gordon) whom he meets at a funeral.

The movie — perhaps the least likely romantic comedy of that decade — opened to mixed reviews at the tail end of 1971 and its flower-power message got lost in a Christmas crush that included 007 and Dirty Harry. By March it had closed nearly everywhere.

But at one theater in the midwest, Harold and Maud kept playing for more than a year. Other exhibitors, when they noticed, started bringing it back — at first for midnight shows, then for regular runs.

I worked as advertising director for a theater chain at the time, and when I told my boss I'd seen Harold and Maud 19 times (partly because I shared a birthday with Bud Cort) he booked it. I came up with an ad campaign that leaned heavily on the lyrics of the Yusuf (then Cat Stevens) song under the final credits: "If You Want to Be Free, Be Free" — and the odd little romance that initially couldn't seem to get out of its own way settled in for a nice long run.

Shortly after it opened, I had vacation time coming, so a friend and I grabbed backpacks, bought Eurail passes, and headed for a brisk three-week tour of European capitals.

In Vienna, we saw an ad for a stage production called Harold Und Maude. Couldn't resist that. The staging of the suicides on the proscenium stage of the Theater An Der Wien was quite clever.

A week later in Paris we found a theater playing Harold Et Maude with the great French actress Madeleine Renaud as Maude. It was on a thrust stage this time, which meant the suicides had to be done entirely differently.

Though neither production was performed in English, the message of looking past differences and learning to love life came through loud and clear. It never got old, as it were — though I did.

When I first saw the movie I was roughly Harold's age. Now, I'm approaching Maude's. Must've internalized something from the movie, because I'm not the least bit unhappy about that.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

All right. We hear you. You're stuck at home. You have played board games. You've cleaned out your closets. You're thinking - now what? Well, our critic Bob Mondello has suggestions for off-the-beaten-path but classic films you can stream at home. He has three he says are personal.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Critics are often asked, what's your favorite movie? My answer - Buster Keaton's silent Civil War comedy "The General."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GENERAL")

MONDELLO: The title is the name of a steam locomotive that Buster pilots in Georgia. When his beloved General is stolen by Yankee spies, he gives chase in another train, which leads to all kinds of crazy acrobatic stunts, daredevil rescues, miracles of comic timing accomplished with full-size locomotives, including the single most spectacular shot in silent film history - a bridge collapse that left a train lying for decades in a wooded gorge.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONDELLO: Being silent, "The General" doesn't have a soundtrack, though its video release has three - all orchestral. Frankly, I prefer the way I saw the film in Salt Lake City a few years back. NPR member station KUER had arranged a showing in a grand movie palace built in the 1920s - and at 1920s prices, 25 cents a ticket.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: This evening, we're live at the Capitol Theatre in downtown Salt Lake City. We're seated next to a grand old organ - two-manual, 11-rank Mighty Wurlitzer.

MONDELLO: Organist Blaine Gale was at the keyboard. Buster Keaton was onscreen. And in no time, a thousand 21st-century moviegoers were shrieking with laughter. Stream it, and you'll see why.

"The General" was made 64 years after the real Civil War locomotive chase it's based on. And 63 years after "The General," Spike Lee made a ferocious comedy that deals with fallout from the Civil War. In "Do The Right Thing," Lee looked bluntly and, for much of the film, hilariously at racial prejudice. Lee plays a pizza delivery guy who does not get along with his boss's racist son.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DO THE RIGHT THING")

SPIKE LEE: (As Mookie) Pino, who's your favorite basketball player?

JOHN TURTURRO: (As Pino) Magic Johnson.

LEE: (As Mookie) Who's your favorite movie star?

TURTURRO: (As Pino) Eddie Murphy.

LEE: (As Mookie) And who's your favorite rock star? Prince.

TURTURRO: (As Pino) They're black, but they're not really black. They're more than black. It's different.

LEE: (As Mookie) It's different?

TURTURRO: (As Pino) Yeah, to me, it's different.

LEE: (As Mookie) Pino, deep down inside, do you wish you were black?

TURTURRO: (As Pino, laughing) Get (unintelligible) out of here.

LEE: (As Mookie) Laugh if you want to. You know your hair is kinkier than mine.

MONDELLO: Tension in "Do The Right Thing" escalates as Lee tightens the screws between laughs. At the preview I attended in 1989, an African American woman behind me spent much of the evening amen-ing (ph) the characters as if she were at church, and a white student nearby spent the evening seething at every amen. At the climax of the film, he hissed at her to be quiet, starting an argument that only stopped because violence erupted onscreen.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DO THE RIGHT THING")

BILL NUNN: (As Radio Raheem, bellowing).

(SOUNDBITE OF GLASS BREAKING)

MONDELLO: A sharper mirror for Spike Lee's point, I couldn't imagine then and still can't. I've seen "Do The Right Thing" quite a few times. And boy, does it hold up.

But the film I've seen the most tackles difference differently. The comedy "Harold And Maude" is about a 19-year-old who's forever faking his own suicide and a 79-year-old he meets at a funeral who is in love with life.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HAROLD AND MAUDE")

RUTH GORDON: (As Maude) I think we're going to be great friends, don't you? Tell me, do you sing and dance?

BUD CORT: (As Harold) Uh, no.

GORDON: (As Maude) I thought not.

MONDELLO: The movie opened at the tail end of 1971, and its flower-power message got lost in a Christmas crush that included 007 and "Dirty Harry."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HAROLD AND MAUDE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) That woman, she took my car.

MONDELLO: But at one theater in the Midwest, "Harold And Maude" kept playing for more than a year, and other exhibitors started bringing it back. I worked for a theater chain at the time. And when I told my boss I'd seen "Harold And Maude" 19 times - partly because I shared a birthday with Bud Cort who played Harold - he booked it, and it clicked.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HAROLD AND MAUDE")

CORT: (As Harold) I enjoyed being dead.

GORDON: (As Maude) A lot of people enjoy being dead, but they're not dead really. They're just backing away from life.

MONDELLO: The message of learning to look past differences never got old, though I did. I'm approaching Maude's age now and not the least bit unhappy about that.

I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF YOU WANT TO SING OUT, SING OUT")

YUSUF ISLAM: (Singing) If you want to sing out, sing out. And if you want to be free, be free 'cause there's a million things to be. You know that there are. And if you want to... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.