The following is part of an overview of the top 100 American narrative fiction feature films, from my perspective. For an introduction to the project and an index of other entries in the series, click here. For a list of more than 800 films which I considered for the top 450 and my eligibility qualifications, click here. And for a way to vote on what you think the top 100 American narrative fiction feature films are, click here. If I’ve written a full-length review of the film on this site, I link to it in the movie’s title. Enjoy!
40) The General (1926), directed by Buster Keaton.
Picture links back here
If the greatness of a movie were judged based on the level of danger that its actors were placed in, then there’d be a heck of a lot more silent epics on my list. (There’s no Safety Last, for example, because climbing up a building is terrifying but not necessarily the stuff of great movies.) But it’s hard not to watch The General without some jaw-dropping panic. That’s the real Buster Keaton, that’s a real train, and all of those stunts carry real risk with them. In one scene, he’s got his mortar loaded up but finds that he’s accidentally unhitched the car holding it to his engine, and that he has accidentally put himself in its line of fire. In another, he loses all visibility as his quarry hid a smoking tender inside a covered bridge. In the scene below, watch him try to move faster than the moving train behind him as he attempts to remove some errant railroad ties.
By the standards of normal human beings, using one railroad tie to punt another one out of the way on the cowcatcher of a moving steam locomotive is a suicide attempt. Keaton, who may go unchallenged as the most unbelievable physical movie actor ever, lands his shot perfectly. What I adore about The General even more than the literally death-defying stunts and action sequences is the way that Keaton’s face, framed by the open windows of the engine, sits and looks on dolefully at the oncoming track. He does not breathe heavily. His eyes look giant, but that’s just the ’20s raccoon eyeliner talking. He doesn’t even sweat. It’s just him, pensive and gloomy and dry and, after what we’ve just seen, as funny as they come. If there’s a flaw in the movie, it’s that there just aren’t enough gags and risks and stunts. The back half of the film is largely a thriller/drama and it lacks the thrilling stakes of Keaton doing his thing. Every now and then, though, there are little moments of humor thrown in like the girlfriend sweeping the floor of the steam engine or an attempt to find a lost shoe in a pile of nothing but.
39) Sullivan’s Travels (1941), directed by Preston Sturges.
Every professional is insufferably self-righteous about his or her profession, but there are few examples more obnoxious to me than the comedian defending comedy as somehow necessary or important. No one questions whether or not a doctor is necessary to modern society; that’s how you know doctors are necessary to modern society. Comedians are like air conditioning: a pleasant luxury that people thrived without for thousands of years. By this standard, I should hate Sullivan’s Travels, but the movie seems to anticipate that argument. The moral of the story is that for people who can lay claim to very little, having a laugh is better than having nothing. The movie does not settle on this vaguely, speaking for vast swaths of people it does not show; on the contrary, the movie’s most powerful sequences are more pictorial than linguistic on the subject of poverty. Joel McCrea plays a well-meaning but clueless rich director, John Sullivan, who has it in his head to direct an adaptation of a social realist novel, O Brother, Where Art Thou? (It’s by an author named “Sinclair Beckstein,” a marvelous little sight gag revealed in the last two minutes of the movie. Sullivan’s Travels is full of these little referential bon mots, as we’ll see.) Sullivan is best known for his comedies, and his producers are aghast that he wants to dabble in drama. They implore him to set aside the “stark realism” and return to something “with a little sex in it.”
Sullivan: I wanted to make you something outstanding, something you could be proud of, something that would realize the potentialities of film as the sociological and artistic medium that it is. (With a little sex in it.) Something like…
Hadrian: Something like Capra. I know.
I dunno what I would have done if I were Capra, laughed or cried.
Sullivan’s half-baked idea is to dress up as a hobo, bringing only a dime, and riding the rails and going to soup kitchens with them so that he can get some firsthand understanding of suffering. His producers hire a team to do a human interest story about the playacting director; his servants are aghast. One of them, though he’s a little harsh on the whole to people living in poverty, seems to understand that what his boss is proposing is, at the very least, unprofitable.
Burrows: If you’ll permit me to say so, sir, the subject is not an interesting one. The poor know all about poverty and only the morbid rich would find the topic glamorous.
Sullivan: But I’m doing it for the poor. Don’t you understand?
Burrows: I doubt if they would appreciate it, sir. They rather resent the invasion of their privacy, I believe quite properly, sir.
Sullivan is incorrigible, and it takes him a long time just to escape Hollywood. After successfully posing as a bindlestiff for some weeks, misfortune befalls him and he is imprisoned for assaulting a railroad employee. In the last fifteen minutes of the film or so, the perspective that had escaped him previously hits him upside the head, so to speak; in the company of a black church and the other chain gang boys, he discovers what a relief it is for the lowly to be able to guffaw freely. He’s one of them when he does, after all. When Sullivan decides to stick with comedy, it’s not because comedy is noble or great, but because he can speak firsthand to its utility.
(It’s worth noting that African-Americans are people in this movie; the chain gang comes to their church to watch the short, and the minister warns his congregation against making the prisoners feel unwelcome. He clears the best seats for them, teaches that all men are equal in the sight of God, and leads “Let My People Go” as the convicts shuffle in. African-Americans are also mingled in with white people at the movie studio and among the tramps. I’m a believer in being careful in judging history either positively or negatively, as I tried to imply in my last post vis-a-vis Gone with the Wind. Simultaneously, Sullivan’s Travels is only two years younger than Gone with the Wind, and it doesn’t need any help with integration.)
38) The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), directed by John Huston.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre has a good-sized cast and isn’t scared of crowds. There are plenty of extras in the Tampico sequences, and Howard is surrounded by a whole bunch of folks when he goes to nurse a sick Indian child. But what makes the movie stand out is its intimacy with its three leads. Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt, and Walter Huston dominate the film even when “Gold Hat” is making his pronouncements about steenking batches or when John Huston gives Bogie a tongue-lashing. We watch as Dobbs goes from a desperate but basically okay man to one corrupted by his lust for gold, and not just in the sense of “we saw it over two hours.” Every step is there for the accounting, from winning the lottery to being decapitated. There’s less characterization for Curtin, whose major arc exposes his unwavering truthfulness, and for Howard, whose wisdom and know-how become more valuable. On my first viewing of the movie, I expected it to be harder for them to find gold; I expected that the prospecting itself would take up some large amount of the film’s runtime. I was totally wrong, and thank goodness. It’s not about looking for gold, obviously, but using gold as the lever to move men. The interactions between the three men, and how Curtin goes from being Dobbs’ sidekick to being Howard’s partner, makes the movie shine. In the Mexican hills, Dobbs plays Lear to Howard’s prophetic Fool; Curtin, as Kent, can only do so much to allay the madness of the man who holds sway.
The scene where the bandits stumble upon the outer range of the trio’s gold mine is preceded by a couple of scenes which I think are far more taut. On a run to get supplies from the town at the bottom of the mountain, Curtin cannot adequately hide what he’s up to from a nosy Yank named Cody (Bruce Bennett), and inadvertently leads the man back to camp. He eats with them – fielding Dobbs’ threats like a shortstop playing a routine grounder – and tries to sway them into allowing him to join their mine as a partner in exchange for not revealing its location. The next morning the men have a conference, with Howard presiding: make him a partner or kill him to keep the secret of their goldmine. Dobbs’ vote is predictable, and so is Howard’s. Curtin’s is not, which is part of what makes the film so special. Curtin, having silently listened to his partners’ arguments in favor and against killing the intruder, only says “For” to levy his vote; Howard, as silent as Curtin and only visually rueful, goes to the tent and gets his pistol. In the end, they don’t have to kill him – the bandits do it for them – but to me this scene is a sign of the basic savagery underlying the movie as a whole. Even fairly gentle men can be pushed to cold-blooded killing if the price is right.
37) It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), directed by Frank Capra.
It’s not enough that George Bailey is driven to the brink of suicide one Christmas Eve, which is where so many synopses of It’s a Wonderful Life pick up. It’s that at every moment of joy in his life, something about Bedford Falls has done something to lower him. I’ll lasso the moon for you, he tells his future wife, Mary, only to hear that his father has died and that all of his dreams of travel and university must be dashed. (These are childhood dreams, although they’ve evolved a smidge from mixing adventure with “a couple of harems, and maybe three or four wives.”) We’ll go on a honeymoon, Mary, he tells his new bride, only to be forced into giving up that money to stave off a bank run. At every step, the local slumlord or the foolish townspeople or an act of God intervenes. When George tells Mary that one night that he intends to build skyscrapers and bridges, it sounds like harmless teen braggadocio; when we see the force of will it takes to keep the Building and Loan open despite the competition of a vastly more powerful competitor in Mr. Potter, we start to think that greatness has been stolen from him. The point, of course, was that the greatness was always in the people he helped and the family he loved, but might-have-beens pervade the movie well before we hit the motherlode of “What if he’d never been born?” It’s not just the agony he throws
Bedford Falls Pottersville into when he doesn’t exist, but the agony that Bedford Falls forced on him over and over again and which he forgives, wholeheartedly, as he runs through town screaming “Merry Christmas!” over and over again.
It’s a Wonderful Life is the culmination of Frank Capra’s directing career. This is true either because it’s the last picture of real value he made, or because it’s the most Capraesque of them all. More than Joe Paine shouting out his guilt on the Senate floor or Babe Bennett recanting the derogatory nature of her articles in court, this is the ending which gets us most: at Christmas, a man surrounded by his family and bailed out by the town (and the brother) who have never been able to thank him before. Capra made five more movies after It’s a Wonderful Life, all of them at least as commercially unsuccessful as this one. Culturally speaking, his values could hardly have been further from the ’70s filmmakers who unleashed the best decade in American film history. Professionally speaking, It’s a Wonderful Life ran headfirst into film noir. The post-World War II vision that Capra had – battered but still optimistic – simply did not align with the pain that other Americans were still coping with. At least he got one chance to show it off his way, in the movie which makes more people cry at Christmas than any other.
36) The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), directed by Orson Welles.
Many of the elements of Citizen Kane which you know and love – the lifestyles of the rich and famous, deep focus, the lovechildren of tracking shots and crane shots, the protagonist you don’t like at all – are back for more in The Magnificent Ambersons, and ever so much more so. At a ball early in the film, the camera winds and falls for ages before finally settling on its targets. It’s a stunning shot; apparently, it was supposed to be even more stunning, but it was one of the pieces of the movie that the studio got its hands on. Like Greed, The Magnificent Ambersons is at least as famous for having been obliterated in the editing room by the studio as it is for being a brilliant movie of its own accord.
In its own time, the movie was probably best regarded for Agnes Moorehead’s performance, which was right. Moorehead is Fanny, an old maid who’s been carrying a torch for the inventor and entrepreneur Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten). Her sister was the one Morgan was in love with, but of course her sister married another man instead, Morgan married another woman, and she’s been lost in the crossfire for two decades. Moorehead does not play the role with much tragedy, but instead with a brand of cynicism that is still not popular in female roles. Fanny is one of the few characters who does not defer lightly to George (Tim Holt, who plays a moron in this movie and thus allows me to give you that link), although George is, in response, perhaps as cruel to her as anyone else.
His primary object to spit venom on is not Fanny but Gene Morgan. George, as is so often the case with young rich people, cannot imagine a future any different from the present he knows, and so he lashes out at the man who introduces horseless carriages to Indiana. In one memorable sequence, George has Lucy (a shimmering Anne Baxter) in a sleigh with him; they pass by one of Gene’s automobiles stuck in the snow, George taunts the stuck passengers (and Gene), and then turns over his sleigh and has to get a ride back with the folks in the car. The car is a strong metaphor for George’s upcoming obsolescence, and in my view is one of the better metaphors in film history. How many times do we hear the phrase “gone the way of the horse and buggy?” George’s life, as he casts it, is an unironic desire to do just that, and to do so with as little poetry as possible.
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