Can a classic Hollywood silent comedy and an Italian Neo-realism tragedy have anything in common?

Photo courtesy of Getty Images . Photo courtesy of CriterionCast.com

The answer is yes, they can.  The General(1926) and Bicycle Thieves(1948), made more than 20 years apart from each other, are 2 very different films but they surprisingly share a few similarities.  The similarities exist in the narrative structure and the use of cameras, lighting, and space.

The General is a silent comedy directed by and starring Buster Keaton.  Keaton plays Johnny Grey, a railroad engineer from Georgia.  At the outbreak of the Civil War his engine “The General”, is stolen from him by Union soldiers while his girlfriend, Annabelle, is on board.  In Bicycle Thieves, the main character Antonio gets a job in post-WW II Rome hanging posters around the city.  He is told by the Union boss that he can only take the job if he owns a bicycle.  On his first day of work his bicycle is stolen.  Both films have a very similar narrative structure.  The main characters have a mode of transportation stolen from them at the beginning of the film, however it is not just the transportation aspect that makes the engine or the bicycle significant.  For Johnny, the engine is not only his pride and joy but it is his means of making a living.  He must chase down the General not just to keep his job but also to save Annabelle and help thwart an attack by the Union Army.  Johnny is also trying to prove that he is not a coward as is the perception of those around him because he was rejected from military service.  For Antonio, the bicycle is so much more than his means of making a living.  It is his family’s salvation and hope for getting above the poverty in post war Rome.  At the start of the film we see Antonio picked out of a crowd of several other desperate men for the job of hanging posters.  It shows us how if he cannot perform this job it could be gone in an instant, given to any one of the hundreds of other willing men.  The desperation is underscored by the ensuing search for the bicycle after it is stolen.  Antonio, with the help of his young son Bruno, goes on a chase all over Rome looking for the bicycle but getting nowhere.  Even when he finds the thief in the end he is told by the police that he doesn’t have enough proof to arrest the thief and that there’s nothing he can do. 

While both stories do have a similar narrative, the difference lies in their endings.  For Johnny, he goes on a heroic but mostly wild and comical chase to get back The General and save Annabelle.  When he succeeds he is promoted to a Lieutenant in the Confederate Army.  For Antonio, his chase to find the stolen bicycle is futile eventually causing him to become a bicycle thief himself only to be caught in the act and shamed in front of his son Bruno.  In the end, Antonio and Bruno join the crowd of hundreds of Italians on the streets of Rome walking away, somehow hoping for a way to get their lives back on track.

The use of cameras and lighting in both films are very similar.  The General used wide shots of open spaces in nature.  This was mostly by necessity as the majority of the film takes place following around the two trains involved in the chase.  There is an amazing amount of camera movement, all tracking, showing Johnny performing stunts, clearing obstacles from the tracks, and setting up traps for the enemy.  Since the film was shot outdoors on the train tracks natural light was used.  In Bicycle Thieves, Vittorio de Sica used wide-angle shots of the streets of Rome to give his film a greater sense of reality.  Antonio and Bruno wander through crowded busy streets or big, empty, war ruined landscapes.  Showing wide shots of Antonio and Bruno in large empty spaces emphasizes how small and insignificant they both are in the struggle for survival in Rome after World War II.  The final wide-shot of Antonio and Bruno disappearing into a large crowd also emphasizes how they are just two among the many people living in poverty and desperation.  The use of natural light also enhances the reality of the story.  Several shots show the bright sunshine along with the shadows cast between buildings and alleys.

The use of camera movement in both movies is very different.  In The General, as stated before, more than half of the movie is shot following the trains, most likely done by having the camera on an adjacent real train track.  In Bicycle Thieves, there are many tracking shots following the characters but due to the advance in technology in the 22 years since the silent era, de Sica was able to get closer to the actors as they moved through the scenes.  Unlike The General where we see Buster Keaton in wide shots performing amazing comedic stunts, in Bicycle Thieves we get to see close ups of Antonio and Bruno, walking through Rome, looking for the bicycle, and seeing their expressions and their emotions as they continue to fail.

Another similarity and difference between the films is the acting.  We now know that both films share a narrative structure and it is reflected in the performance of the main characters.  At the beginning of The General Johnny is desperate to prove himself to Annabelle and her family that he is not a coward.  In Bicycle Thieves Antonio is also desperate to prove to his family that he will be able to support them with his new job and bring them out of poverty.  The difference is in the performances by the two leading actors.  The tone of The General is slapstick comedy, which is what Buster Keaton was known to be a master at.  While Keaton tries to act sad and serious he immediately follows it up with a joke or physical mishap that lightens the mood as in the case of when Annabelle tells him she never wants to see him again.  A visibly sad Johnny strolls away and sits down on the wheel connector of the train engine.  For a few seconds the scene gets serious as Johnny looks at the floor and sulks.  Suddenly the mood and Johnny are lifted as the engineer starts the train and Johnny begins to rise and fall with the wheel connector as the train rolls down the track. 

The tone of Bicycle Thieves is suspense.  For the entire movie the audience is on the hunt for the bicycle with Antonio and Bruno.  As the search gets longer Antonio becomes more desperate.  Here there is no comedy, only hopelessness.  Three times Antonio asks the police for help.  At the beginning when he reports the bicycle stolen, at the market when he believes he may have found it, and at the end when he finds the thief.  The first two interactions make Antonio so angry and frustrated that when he finds the thief he tries to physically attack him. He is  stopped by a gathering crowd of the thief’s friends.  When Bruno gets a police officer to intervene and Antonio is once again told that he cannot do anything to help him, it is the final straw and it sets up the tragic ending of the film.  

The General and Bicycle Thieves are two classic films that on first viewing seem like two totally different movies.  If you take a closer look, you will be able to see that the basic narrative structure is the same.  It is a reminder that there are many different ways to tell a story.

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