Buster Keaton's THE GENERAL is not simply one of the greatest silent comedies ever made, it is one of the greatest films of any era. In restaging the true story of one man s journey behind enemy lines to reclaim his captured locomotive during the Civil War, Keaton stages a series of complex chases, using lumbering trains as comedic props. Keaton s inventive mind is matched only by his physical athleticism, making THE GENERAL a truly breath-taking experience. Keaton's first foray into making feature films, THREE AGES is a parody of D.W. Griffith s Intolerance, dramatizing man s quest for love in three parallel settings a modern city, the Stone Age, and ancient Rome and loading each plotline with amazing stunts and hysterical sight gags.
A joke doesn't always need to be told with words. Simple actions, accents of gesture, a swift slide along a slick floor, or even a feat of acrobatics timed just right can illicit terrific belly laughs. Chaplin knew this. Harold Lloyd knew this. The dynamic duo of Laurel and Hardy knew this long before Talkies came about. Buster Keaton was among these comedic masters. Not only did he know how to bring an audience to fits of hysterical laughter, but the man knew how to time impossibly dangerous stunts as well as pace a film to generate tension and suspense. Kino Lorber's release of 'The General' and 'Three Ages' represents the very best of the master filmmaker and actor.
Three Ages (1923)
As Keaton's first attempt at feature filmmaking, we're given one of the best satires ever filmed. A parody of D.W. Griffith's 'Intolerance,' 'Three Ages' tells the sprawling story of a man's quest for love from caveman times, to ancient Rome, to modern New York city. With Keaton in the lead for all three stories, we're treated to see how a meek and scrawny man triumphs over strength and brawn to win the affection of the most beautiful woman in their respective ages.
The General 1926)
It's incredible to think that upon its initial release that this film was a titanic flop. There's something to be said for reevaluating a film over the years because this film is a classic in suspense filmmaking as well as comedic timing. We watch Keaton's amiable Johnnie on a quest to steal back his beloved train engine The General after it was stolen by Union Soldiers. At the same time, we get to enjoy Johnnie win back the heart of the beautiful Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack) by proving his bravery under fire.
It's difficult to offer up any sort of criticism for either 'Three Ages' or for 'The General.' Both films are true classics in every sense of the word. From the era in which they were filmed to the story to the impeccable performances and direction from Buster Keaton. This is silent-era entertainment at its finest. I've often been drawn into conversations trying to decide who was better, Keaton, Lloyd, or Chaplin. To tell you the truth, it's impossible to take a side as each of these men were true artists of their profession. They were the pioneers that comedic filmmaking was built upon. That said, I have always been a bit more partial to Keaton. Make no mistake, I love Chaplin and Lloyd, they made some of the finest films for decades - but I just been a bigger Keaton fan. I love his mugging. I love his athleticism. I love his physical comedy timing. I love that he was able to take all of these elements and mix them together so effectively that his films couldn't work with spoken dialogue and sound effects.
I can't be sure how many times I've seen 'The General.' It's been a lot. It may not be one I pull out every year or something like that, but it's pretty darn close. It's not even a movie that I tend to watch in full, I just like watching scenes of it and then can go for a day or two before finishing it. Part of the reason I watch this film so disjointedly is that I often become exhausted from thinking about how Keaton managed to film it. Movie tricks are nothing new, but the man didn't have the array of effects to work with that modern filmmakers get to enjoy. Keaton didn't fake it. Everything is in camera and on the screen. It's both scary and hilarious when Marion Mack is being carried over the coal car as the engine chugs down the line at full speed.
At the same time, 'Three Ages' is a film I was barely familiar with. I'd seen snippets and various parts before, but I never knew they were from the same film. Putting this in the context that it's a parody of D.W. Griffith's 'Intolerance' makes it all the more hilarious. I love Keaton riding a stop-motion animated dinosaur. I loved seeing his caveman, Roman and New Yorker characters win out over the brutish thug in wildly intricate ways. It's truly a comedic masterpiece that should be more wildly appreciated for the amazing number of jokes it has to offer - not to mention featuring Keaton in his prime! When combined with 'The General,' you get a double billing of silent era comedy that is too good to resist.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The General / Three Ages' arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Lorber with new 2k restorations performed by Lobster Films. Both 'The General' and 'Three Ages' occupy their own respective Region A discs, 'The General' is pressed on a BD-50 disc while 'Three Ages' gets a BD-25. Both discs are housed in a sturdy standard 2-disc Blu-ray case. Both discs load directly to their respective static image main menus with traditional navigation options.
When you consider that this film is now 90 years old, it's a hell of a thing to get to enjoy this 1.33:1 1080p transfer. The condition of this master is a bit of a revelation. This film has long been held in the public domain and there are numerous DVD releases out there, but this Blu-ray release from Kino and the restoration work done by Lobster Films blows them out of the water. The level of detail is absolutely astounding. Fine facial features, clothing, set design work are all on screen for the audience to pick apart. Black levels and grayscale provide plenty of shadow separation and depth to the image. Grain levels can fluctuate from scene to scene depending on the conditions of the elements. While there are some scratches, speckling, and other age-related issues throughout the run of the film, they're in no way distracting or terrible enough to knock the grade for. In fact, I'm willing to bet most folks will be very impressed with the restoration work performed here. I've seen this film on disc in near-unwatchable shape so this is a truly impressive restoration.
As I hadn't seen this film prior to this release, I can only judge it based on my experiences viewing other silent films from this era. To that end, this 1.33:1 1080p transfer is another solid presentation. This transfer is pretty darn good considering its age and the obvious wear and tear it endured over the years. While the film exhibits its share of heavy grain, scratches and near-constant speckling, the overall appearance is easy to enjoy. Details are wonderful - especially during the caveman era where the cast is clad in overly furry loincloths and the men have impressively shaggy hair and beards. Black levels and grayscale are in fine form and prove the image with a terrific sense of depth and dimension. There are times where whites can get a little blown out, but again this is scene to scene and indicative of the source elements. I particularly enjoyed the stop-motion dinosaur sequence and its clarity considering the crude animation techniques of the time. It's just one more terrific joke in a film full of them and this transfer does the film a great justice.
Fans are given two terrific scores to choose from, one by Robert Israel and the other by Joe Hisaishi and each is presented as LPCM 2.0 mixes. Both scores provide perfect accentuation for the action and comedy hijinks on screen. Since you can't really go wrong with either one of them, plug one in for your first viewing and then the next time you feel the need to pull 'The General' out, give the other score a go. I don't have a particular preference as they're both quite good.
Like 'The General,' fans can choose from two terrific scores, one provided by Robert Israel and the other by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. Again, both scores are top tier material and hit the comedic notes of the film perfectly. For this one though I tended to enjoyed the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra score better, it's a bit pluckier and playful and it tuned better to the caveman segments which had me on the floor laughing already.
Audio Commentary: Film Historians Michael Schlesinger and Stan Taffel provide a terrific audio commentary filled with details and history about the making of the film and its initial reception.
Orson Welles Introduction: (SD 12:23) Wells offers up a pretty fun and interesting introduction to the film as he clearly has a great love and affection for the work of Keaton.
Gloria Swanson Introduction: (SD 2:14) This is a nice little snippet that lets the great actress talk about her appreciation for Keaton and 'The General.' It's very short, but viewers should get the idea.
Return of the General: (SD 11:17) This is a pretty terrific short film about the restoration of the actual train featured in the film.
Alka-Seltzer Commercial: (SD 1:04) Buster Keaton gets some fast acting help from Speedy to sooth his rumbly tummy in this great classic commercial.
Candid Camera: (SD 5:53) Host Arthur Godfrey introduces this classic sketch as a dinner patron who is just having the worst luck while the people around him watch and try not to laugh.
Man's Genesis: (SD 9:12) This is from a D.W. Griffith short made in 1912 that provided some inspiration behind 'Three Ages.'
Buster Keaton is a comedy genius. Plain and simple as that. The man had a unique physicality to his brand of humor that made instantly funny while sporting a face that made him easy to like. With 'The General' and 'Three Ages' we're treated to two of Keaton's best comedic efforts and the laughs come hard and fast. Kino Lorber has done a terrific job bringing these two film to Blu-ray in this 2-film set. The Lobster Films restorations are pretty damn impressive, especially for 'the General. The new scores provided for the films are great and the host of bonus features will keep fans occupied for a couple of hours. Whether you're a fan of both films or not or only desire one of the titles in this set, it's very easy to call both films highly recommended so you're just getting two great movies on Blu-ray for the price of one!