By Jennifer Churchill, author of Movies Are Magic: A Kid’s History of the Moving Image
Best silent film of all time? The General is top of mind for most film buffs. It’s on almost every “best movies” list, including the AFI’s 100 Greatest American Films of All Time. It’s required viewing for film historians, aspiring filmmakers, and classic film aficionados.
Anyone with even an elementary awareness of films made before “talkies” were invented knows that Buster Keaton’s 1926 brilliant, silent opus The General is pure genius and a must-see. An action-comedy featuring our hero as Johnnie Gray, Buster plays an unlucky-in-love bumbling fella who ends up inadvertently hijacking a train and outsmarting the enemy, gaining respect and his lady love by the end. Buster was reportedly very proud of this film, more than he was of any other in his repertoire.
Known as The Great Stone Face, Buster Keaton’s permanently serious – even sad – face, offered a brilliant and hilarious juxtaposition to whatever silly shenanigans, chaos or choreographed physical comedy he was engaging in at the moment. You feel sorry for Buster even while you’re laughing at him. It’s his greatest charm.
Whether it is or isn’t the best silent film – or even just the best overall film – ever made is entirely subjective, but one thing is certain: Everyone should see The General at least once. In a historic movie theatre with a live orchestra, if at all possible. But even watching from the comfort of home, the added score and sound effects help bring even a silent film to life for younger audiences. As silent-film accompanist and historian Ben Model likes to remind us, silent films were never really silent.
And if you’re a parent, a grandparent, the coolest babysitter in the world, or just that weird relative (that’s me) who loves to foist their passion for film on family members, it’s a great “old movie” to share with kids.
Here are five reasons why.
1. Laughter. This film isn’t as “laugh after laugh” funny as some of Buster’s other films, but Buster’s awe-inspiring physical comedy – done without special effects and with great danger (and sometimes injury) to himself – is arguably at its peak, and very “cartoon-like” to kids. Especially those age 3 to 6, who will laugh right out loud as Buster executes gag after brilliant gag on the traveling train. It’s so great to give little ones some exposure to this kind of storytelling, which takes more time and requires a bit more patience of modern audiences, and therefore has a bigger payoff when the humor hits.
2. Historical perspective. Classic movies offer us a peek into history. Of course, modern storytellers don’t typically celebrate the Confederate side of the Civil War story. Classic film offers an opportunity to talk about these paradigm shifts and their implications with (maybe older) kids. In particular, it’s interesting to share and discuss the fact that this film was based on a true story (with the ‘hero’ being a Union solder in actuality) and the evolving depictions of the Civil War in films and media over time.
3. Education. There’s a linear connection that runs from the still and moving images captured more than 100 years ago to the YouTube videos, movies and video games that kids watch on hand-held and electronic devices today. Kids can be exposed to some simple STEM concepts watching these clever silent films, and get a good dose of media literacy, too. Read up on some of Buster’s filmmaking tricks – such as how Buster set fire to a bridge and crashed a train into the river below – and wow the kids with your insider scoop.
4. Modern copycats. Scores of modern actors have shown in their work and expressed in interviews that they have been deeply influenced by Buster Keaton – stars such as Jackie Chan, Bill Murray, and Johnny Knoxville are just a few. Look for the Great Stone Face showing up in many Johnny Depp performances, most obviously in the quirky 1993 romantic comedy Benny & Joon.
5. The final kiss scene. If ever there was a kissing scene you won’t mind the kids seeing, this is it. It’s so clever, quaint, cute and funny, you’ll remember it as one of the most satisfying endings of any silent film you’ve seen.
TIP: To help younger kids develop a sense of excitement viewing these older, black-and-white, and (to them) non-traditional narrative films, it helps to build up scenes before they happen. Don’t ruin the ‘surprise’ but an “Oh my gosh, wait until you see this crazy train crash coming up; it’s the most expensive stunt in silent film history!” helps keep their interest.
Just keep doing your part to share with our future generations the mantra that movies – particularly classic movies – truly are magic.
Jennifer Churchill is the author of MOVIES ARE MAGIC, a children’s book about the history of the moving image, and WHAT WOULD CARY GRANT DO?, an upcoming children’s manners book. Jennifer is also the co-host of Classic Films for Kids, with her sidekick Weston, exploring the best family-friendly classics from Hollywood's Golden Age. Classic Films for Kids is showing Saturdays at 11AM ET on The Film Detective or stream anytime on The Film Detective app.