Harold Lloyd was great, Charlie Chaplin was greater, but Buster Keaton was the greatest of the silent clowns. Like Lloyd and Chaplin, Keaton was an auteur as well as a businessman. Keaton's athleticism and brilliance in staging sight gags have never seen an equal, and his chosen persona of "The Great Stone Face," a hilariously contained stoical demeanor to match his compact physical frame, was itself a stroke of genius and a triumph of subtly expressive comic acting. Keaton made a slew of amazing shorts and features, but one has always risen above the rest by dint of its sheer scale. That film is The General, which consistently appears on critics polls as one of the greatest films ever made.
It's no hyperbole to say that The General can change one's perception of what movies—and particularly comedies—are capable of achieving. In an eventful seventy-eight minutes, writer-director Keaton and co-director/co-writer Clyde Bruckman engagingly fictionalize a great true tale of the Civil War, stage action that mostly takes place on real railways with real trains, craft a warm-hearted and ridiculously funny romance, and offer up one of cinema's all-time-greatest heroes: Johnnie Gray. Like a lot of silent films, there's nothing like seeing The General with an audience laughing and gasping at each new gag and plot development. But the film is also rich as an objet d'art worthy of study for its impressive story construction, prodigious organization of production, and meticulous precision of execution, all embodied in a climactic, spectacular bridge collapse and train wreck filmed at a reported cost of $42,000.
In 1861 Georgia, young Johnnie Gray (Keaton) is the engineer responsible for the locomotive "The General." The good-hearted Johnnie longs to marry Southern belle Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack), but when the Civil War hits close to home, she insists that Johnnie do his duty and enlist. Undaunted, Johnnie races to be first in line to join the Confederate army, only to be rejected (unbeknownst to Johnnie, he's deemed too important, as an engineer, to be sent into battle). Despondent at his rejection by both the army and his ex-fiancée, Johnnie returns his energies to his duties as an engineer. A year later, Johnnie runs afoul of a Yankee plot, as spies hijack The General and kidnap Annabelle Lee in the bargain. Truly, only one man can save the day: Johnnie gives chase, determined to win back his train, his girl, and his pride.
The amazingly adept Keaton proves as endlessly clever and athletic as his screen surrogates, and The General is chock-full of hilarious sight gags, including bits of business that incorporate moving trains, cow-catchers, a bear (and bear trap), and a misbehaving cannon. The General never fails to get a crowd cheering, but even a lone viewer will find his or her heart soaring at the pure goodness of Keaton's hero and the poetic justice he earns in his bumbing battle with his enemies and his universe. The General has to be seen to be believed. Put more simply, it just has to be seen: those who love movies haven't lived until they've seen Keaton in action.
The General has always been something of a flagship title for Kino's home-video division, and it gets the deluxe treatment once more in its bonus-feature-laden Blu-ray debut. The film is the thing, of course, and it looks sharp in its hi-def BD premiere. There's fairly astonishing detail in this lovely, mostly sepia-toned transfer, much more than has been apparent in earlier home video editions. The sharpness of Blu-ray also heightens the minor flaws in the elderly source, but once your eyes adjust, you'll find that this HD master, "from a 35mm archive print struck from the original camera negative," delivers The General at its best, at least for now (the film could also benefit from a digital restoration of the sort afforded to hugely popular titles like The Wizard of Oz--perhaps one day The General will be as popular as it deserves to be and thereby justify such an enormous expense).
Anyway, Keaton fans will be in seventh heaven with this presentation, and the option of three musical scores: the 1987 Carl Davis score recorded for the Thames Television/Channel Four presentation produced by David Gill and Kevin Brownlow; the 1995 Robert Israel score, commissioned by David Shepard for that year's DVD release; and the Lee Erwin theatre organ score--circa the 1970s--recorded at Carnegie Hall for the purpose of theatrical reissues. Presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and/or uncompressed 2.0 stereo, all of these scores are worthy in some way. My preference is for the theatre organ score, which gives one that movie-palace feel.
In "Video Tour of The General" (18:05, HD), Harper Harris of the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History displays the original Civil War locomotive The General and recounts the facts of The Great Locomotive Chase
"The Buster Express" (5:47, HD) is an exclusive montage of Keaton film clips illustrating the director's fascination with trains.
In "Tour of Filming Locations" (4:28, HD) Silent Echoes author John Bengston narrates a brief documentary mapping the film's original locations, with film clips as well as still images of how the places appear years later.
We also get "Home Movie Footage" (1:00, HD) of the film's shoot, shot by locals of Cottage Grove, Oregon.
"Intro by Gloria Swanson" (2:13, HD), circa the 1960s, was intended for TV broadcasts of the film, and finds Swanson briefly recalling the glory days and Keaton's place in cinema history.
Recorded for the public television series The Silent Years, a 1971 "Intro by Orson Welles" (12:21, HD) includes Welles' personal recollection, career overview of Keaton, and remarks about The General.
2008 "DVD Release Trailer" (1:10, HD)
Lastly, a Photo Gallery includes more than 75 images (film stills, candid snapshots, and promotional posters).
As a rabid Buster Keaton fan, I couldn't be happier with this disc, which I can only hope will be the first in an avalanche of Keaton on Blu-ray from Kino.
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