Saturday, March 24, 2012

The General (4) vs. Tropic Thunder (13)


       "The General"(1926) is the classic Buster Keaton comedy set in the Civil War. Keaton plays a Southern railroad engineer named Johnnie Gray (get it?) who is turned down when he tries to enlist (and is not told it’s because he has an important job). He loses his girl because she thinks he is a coward. His locomotive, the General, is stolen by Yankee spies as part of a plan to take Chattannoga. Johnnie gives chase and comedy ensues. He rescues his engine and his girl (who had been kidnapped) and is in turn chased back to Rebel lines. He then takes part in the battle and emerges a hero.

        “Tropic Thunder” (2008) is a spoof of actors, movie-making, and war movies. It was written, produced, and directed by Ben Stiller. It is set in Southeast Asia, where a movie about a Vietnam War prisoner of war escape is being made. The film is over-budget, behind schedule, and the director cannot control his actors. The studio head threatens to shut the film down. The director decides to shoot the movie “guerrilla-style” by placing the actors in the jungle and filming their actions. Has-been action star Tugg Speedman (Stiller) is captured by a drug gang and the other actors come to his rescue.


       “The General” is a tour-de-farce by Keaton. His stone-faced Johnnie is funny without speaking (which is crucial because the movie is silent). His body language and physical humor are amazing. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast is below par. His girlfriend Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack) is game (Keaton physically abuses her in some scenes), but not impressive. The rest of the cast are your typical silent movie actors with their white faces and their arms flailing.

       “Tropic Thunder” is an interesting blend of top-notch comedians (Stiller, Jack Black, Danny McBride) and serious actors who prove their comedy chops (Robert Downey, Jr. and Tom Cruise). All of the main cast are excellent. Downey is hilarious as the method actor (ala Russell Crowe) that has his skin blackened to play an African-American soldier. Stiller is great as the obsolete action star (Stallone, etc.) who went “full retard” in his last role. Jack Black is his usual manic self as the drug-addled, flatulence-talented Eddie Murphy clone. The revelation is Cruise as the studio chief. His exuberant performance rocks the screen.

First Half Score: Tropic Thunder - 46   The General – 35


       “The General” is old-school silent movie humor. Little of the dialogue is subtitled so the movie obviously relies on sight gags and slapstick. I counted 27 falls in the film (mostly by Keaton). Note: good drinking game – take a hit every time someone falls in this movie. It is not the most sophisticated humor you can find, but I guess people rolled in the aisles back then. Some of it is funny (there’s a bit with a sword that is amusing ), but some of it is just silly (e.g., a bit with a bear trap). Keaton’s physical performance (he did his own stunts) and facial expressions are commendable. He is one of the greats.

        “Tropic Thunder” is a polarizing movie. I can see why some people were offended by it. There is a white man playing a black man and humor at the expense of retardation. Plus the language is very potty. However, if you admire a film with balls and a taste for lunacy, you should enjoy it. It has some gut-busting lines and situations. The actors are uniformly funny. As a satire of war movies, it is the gold standard. Anyone who has seen “Platoon” and “Apocalypse Now” has to admire the inspired skewering.

Second half score: Tropic Thunder - 48 The General - 32


        “The General” is rated #18 on AFIs list of 100 Greatest Comedies and “Tropic Thunder” is unlikely to make the top 100 the next time they come up with the list. However, just because a movie is a classic does not mean it holds up well. Unless you are very prudish, you cannot seriously argue that “The General” is funnier than “Tropic Thunder”. “The General” deserves credit for using an historical event (the Andrew’s Raid) for humor, but “Tropic Thunder” trumps that by making fun of the war movie genre. That makes it a greater war comedy than comedy.

       As a post script, I would like to mention that this match-up was pure coincidence and yet we have the oldest great war comedy versus the most recent.  This clearly shows how humor has changed over the decades.  What we found funny in the 1920s is different than what we find funny today.  I won't argue that humor today is better than back then, but I think Hollywood does reflect what society feels is funny.  A movie similar to "The General" would be a flop today.  We can enjoy classic comedies, but I find that they bring smiles, not laughs.  Movies like "Tropic Thunder" bring laughs, but I feel guilty about some of the things I am laughing about (or at).  Still a laugh is better than a smile.

Tropic Thunder     94  
The General           67


  1. I'm too partial to Tropic Thunder and haven't seen The General.
    I certainly will not disagree.

  2. This matchup was between modern humor and silent movie humor. It was just a coincidence that I matched up the oldest great war comedy with the most recent. It clearly indicates how much our collective sense of humor has changed over the course of the 20th Century. I'm not sure if it's a change for the better, but I do know that I much prefer today's humor to that of the 1920s. Sometimes I feel ashamed of what I laugh at and I wonder about where society is headed, but what the hell. A laugh is still better than a smile when it comes to comedies.

    You need to see "The General" just to see how far we have come. It is on You Tube and only lasts about 1:20.


Please fell free to comment. I would love to hear what you think and will respond.