Walt Disney and The Knucklehead, Part 2

Part 1 of this post concerned three films that I used as an alternative to Disney movies as my knucklehead was growing up. Not that we boycotted Mr. Disney’s products; we did not. But your knucklehead needs to know what else is out there, and in particular, what came before. Parental reconnaissance is still essential before screening any of these films for your kid! Just because I found these films to be suitable for my boy, at various stages in his childhood, doesn’t make them automatically appropriate for your kid or your family. Hopefully, you’ll get to thinking about some of the films you grew up with and go from there, sharing your own film history with your child. Ready?

The General (1926)

Let’s get the educational part out of the way first: every child should be exposed to silent films while growing up. They are fading fast (more than 90% of silent films are already forever lost to us), and are more precious to us than ever. For the first time in history, we are able to look back 100 years into our past, and see film of real people, moving, breathing, acting, dancing, fighting, loving, and living. No other generation has been able to say this. It’s extraordinary. The people who made these films often didn’t consider themselves to be artists, but they were, more than they knew, because they were creating the rules of this new medium even as they created the art itself. Even from the start, filmmakers became aware that they could bring experiences to an audience through film that they could never bring to a stage.

No one knew this better than Buster Keaton, the star and co-director (with Clyde Bruckman) of The General. Keaton refused to treat the camera as a passive object fixed in place to observe a scene. Keaton experimented wildly with camera effects, outdoor settings, bringing the camera in, then out; anything a stage audience would previously be unable to see. Watch, for example, how Keaton uses a hole in a tablecloth to bring his audience two perspectives impossible outside of film. If Keaton was going to film a scene, he was going to make sure there was something in it he couldn’t have brought to an indoor stage. Buster Keaton today abides somewhat in the shadow of Charlie Chaplin, a genius in his own right. But I always had a place in my heart for Buster, because he seemed to be encouraging others to pick up where he left off. As an artist, Chaplin left us marveling at what he could do. As a filmmaker, Keaton left us marveling at what we could do with this exciting new technology.

But enough of the film school stuff; your knucklehead will find this stuff a hoot. Instead of cartoons, consider stocking up on the comedy shorts of Buster, Charlie, Mack Sennett, and Harold Lloyd. Slapstick comedy never gets old, and you’re never too young to appreciate it. But I picked The General as a feature-length film (72 minutes) because most of the film is shot in and around trains. The titular character is actually a steam locomotive. Buster plays the train’s engineer, a southerner living at the outbreak of the Civil War. While everyone else is enlisting, he’s shut out of the rebel army (deemed too essential in his present job to the Confederacy), which his girlfriend mistakes for cowardice, thus closing her heart to him. But when Keaton’s engine is stolen by northern spies, he races after it in another locomotive, steals back his engine, rescues the girl, and foils an advance by the Union forces, saving the day.

The film is essentially a long, comic chase scene, and the gags Keaton comes up with remain the most inventive we’ve ever seen, even to this day. On its own, it’s enjoyable. But appreciating as we do today, that no models, no computer-generated images, no enhanced visuals (well, at least not as we know them) were used, what we see becomes astonishing. A highlight of the film is a locomotive crashing into a river under the collapse of a burning bridge. Looking at that today, we appreciate more than ever that Keaton had one take, one chance to get that on film. There was no second bridge or train standing by; there wasn’t that much he could fix in post-production. The scene is almost 90 years old, and it still impresses.

If your knucklehead likes trains, if your knucklehead likes to laugh, your knucklehead will like The General. It does not move at the dizzying pace of today’s comedy. You will have to read a title card or two to your knucklehead (though not too many; Keaton, like the best silent filmmakers, kept these to a minimum and told as much of a story visually as they could). But your knucklehead will get used to that. He or she just might surprise you and enjoy the change of pace.

Top Hat (1935)

To be honest, I never would have set out to include this film in this list. I’ve never been much of a fan of musicals.* I bought this film, originally on VHS, because I found it in a library sale for three dollars and figured it was a cheap way to flesh out a movie collection. I never set out to introduce this film to The Knucklehead, but one day when he was a toddler, I popped it in the VCR, and he was transfixed.

And why not? What Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers show us the human body is capable of is absolutely remarkable. The complaint that Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did except backwards and in high heels is actually a little unfair to both of them. These two (Fred especially, only because he gets to dance more than Ginger does in this film) make physical expression look as effortless as it is enjoyable. Mark Sandrich directed Top Hat and he was smart enough to let his performers play out their routines in long takes, not the chop-cutting directors today often use when their performers are unable to bring enough drama to an athletic scene on their own (a problem shared by directors of both dance and fight scenes).

Did I mention the film is also hilarious? That’s mostly thanks to an outstanding comic back-up cast of Edward Everett Horton as Horace Hardwick, Eric Blore as his manservant Bates, and Erik Rhodes as the hot-blooded Alberto Beddini. Yes, there is a truckload of gay innuendo surrounding the three of these characters, but that’s likely to go right over the head of your young knucklehead. And if it doesn’t, you have a great opportunity to talk to your kid about the presentation of homosexuality and manhood in Hollywood, and how far we have and have not come.

What’s Up, Doc? (1972)

OK, the entire film is probably more appropriate for the older (10-12-ish maybe?) knucklehead. For the younger ones, you can cut right to the chase. Literally. Right at the hour mark on the DVD.

Directed by Peter Bogdanovich, What’s Up, Doc? is a return to the old screwball comedies. Ryan O’Neal is a stuffy professor of musicology, Madeline Kahn (in her first feature film) is his overbearing fiancée, and Barbra Streisand is the force of nature that just can’t let everything go as planned. The plot also involves four identical travel cases that get mixed up, and draw the entire cast into one of the best comedic chase scenes ever filmed. In San Francisco, no less. Before you get to that chase scene, you’re treated to a feast of slapstick gags and some truly inspired dialogue, expertly delivered. (No surprise here, since Buck Henry was one of the screenwriters, and several cast members, including John Hillerman, Liam Dunn, Kenneth Mars, and Kahn herself would go on to work for Mel Brooks.) You will laugh out loud with your knucklehead. I promise. And, again, all the sights gags you see, especially the ones in the chase scene, are done without the benefit of CGI – real effects done by real people. In fact, What’s Up Doc? became the first American film to credit its extensive stunt cast in the closing credits.

We’ll be revisiting this series of posts in the future. Share what you love with your knucklehead, not just what you’re told to show to your kids. I have a friend who bonds with her 6-year-old knucklehead over horror films. Not my cup of meat, but I’ll bet their relationship is the richer for it.


*Singin’ In The Rain deserves to be included in this series. It never will be. I just can’t stand the contempt for screenwriting this film promotes.

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3 Responses to Walt Disney and The Knucklehead, Part 2

  1. I’ve been waiting for this! As a fellow movie buff, I so enjoyed Part One and have been waiting patiently for Part Two. I love the films that you’ve included and, in fact, also watched a lot of Fred and Ginger with my kids when they were small. But I vehemently disagree with your exclusion of Singin’ in the Rain! You have some explaining to do, Mister!

    • I did say, dear Natalie, that “Singin’ In The Rain” deserves to be on that list. I have no problem with other families, with different family values than mine, exposing their children to this film. It is a landmark in athleticism, grace, and comedy. I just can’t abide that these characters are so contemptuous of the film they’re working on that they can just shoehorn it into a whole new direction. Like the written word DOESN’T EVEN MATTER! Like things like “story” and “plot” are trifles to be discarded! I can’t do it, I just can’t get past it. I can’t let it go. I’m actually a little jealous of people who can disregard that and enjoy the film. They say that the first step is admitting that you have a problem….

      • But keep in mind that silent filmmakers worked from scenarios, not scripts. So action could (and would) often change on a dime depending on the whims of the director. These characters are still figuring their way around a script as we would define it and are making things up as they go along, much the way silent directors worked. So cut them some slack! You can bet that the actors respect their script even if the characters don’t.

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