Kino Lorber remains committed to releasing Buster Keaton feature-length silent films on Blu-ray, which began almost a decade ago with several stand-alone and "double feature" discs, plus a handy boxed set (re-released last November with a few modest upgrades, to make things even more confusing). This time around, it's back to the well for a few of Keaton's biggest hits, paired with a lesser-known entry and armed with new 2K restorations and bonus features courtesy of French distributor Lobster Films. Whether or not you're up for a double dip (or is it triple?) will depend on your enthusiasm for silent slapstick, but the genre's continued presence on Blu-ray is definitely a good thing.
Perhaps Keaton's most enduring production, The General (1926) was a critical and commercial flop during its original run, barely recouping its sizable $400,000 budget. As a result, Keaton's dual careers as actor and director began their descent: producer Joseph Schenck sold Keaton's contract to MGM, who took control of his earlier films and creative power of many future ones. Yet contemporary audiences should find The General exciting and accessible: it's one of Keaton's longer silent films at 75 minutes and definitely his most ambitious, yet hardly complex by today's standards. Keaton stars as Johnnie Gray, an engineer in Civil War-era Georgia: hoping to woo the lovely Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack) by enlisting, he's turned down for his valuable railroad experience. She only wants a man in uniform...so when Union spies steal his train with her on board, Johnnie pursues them by any means necessary.
Shot in rural Oregon, The General represented silent filmmaking shot on a grand scale, with Keaton insisting on as much historical accuracy as possible. Three antique locomotives and more than 500 extras were used, one of the film's most memorable stunts went on record as the most expensive single-shot in film history at the time , and The General's slow and steady progression across miles of landscape give it a truly expansive atmosphere. Yet it feels extremely intimate due to the low number of "speaking parts" and major players, as well as the director's trademark avoidance of excessive intertitles. Through it all, Keaton remains the charismatic center and every reason to keep watching; he's so magnetic, you'll forget the Confederates are supposed to be the good guys.
Also included as part of this double feature is Three Ages (1923), which served as the first of several times Keaton pulled quadruple duty as writer, director, producer, and star. Slightly shorter at just 63 minutes, the plot is as simple as the execution is ambitious: we're presented with three tales of love and competition as a scrappy underdog (Keaton) and burly alpha male (Wallace Beery, The Champ) compete for the affections of a woman (Margaret Leahy, in her only film role) in prehistoric times, Ancient Rome, and a modern city. Made as a tongue-in-cheek response to D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, the film bounces between periods and rarely stays put for more than five minutes at a time. Without the obvious highlight of our fearless star's central performance(s), Three Ages might fall a little flat---and though it still feels like second-tier Keaton, that's not exactly a complaint in the long run.
Video & Audio Quality
Presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratios, The General and Three Ages look terrific in 1080p thanks to Lobster Video's new 2K restorations. Perhaps the most immediate difference from earlier home video editions is that they're presented in true black-and-white, as opposed to The General's sepia tone on Kino's 2009 Blu-ray and the colored tints of their 2001 DVD. Other than that, it's obvious there's been a good amount of clean-up work here: a lot of dirt and the occasional missing frame(s) still remain (and Three Ages is practically falling apart at the seams during a few sequences later in the film), but these problems are perfectly acceptable considering both films are now over 90 years old. The transfers are very stable with occasional flickering, great image detail at times, and even a fine amount of detail during many of the outdoor scenes. Although Cohen Film Collection's 4K restoration of The General (and several other Keaton films) has been prepped since 2013 and will most likely be issued on Blu-ray in the near future, this still represents the best current presentation of both films on home video to date.
DISCLAIMER: The still images and screen captures on this page are decorative and do not represent the Blu-ray under review.
Collectively, The General and Three Ages include four different orchestral scores in a variety of formats; those from The General are composed by Robert Israel (a brand new track - not to be confused with his 1994 score from previous discs, presented here in PCM 2.0) and Joe Hisaishi (2004, Dolby Digital 5.1), with the latter by Robert Israel (PCM 2.0) and the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra (Dolby Digital 2.0). I opted for the Hisaishi & Mont Alto scores for this viewing and found both very enjoyable, although much different in terms of volume and overall atmosphere. Channel separation is strong and, depending on the track, rear activity and low end are nicely rendered. Aside from the missing earlier scores (Carl Davis' 1987 orchestral track was terrific), it's tough to complain: silent films rarely if ever have "official soundtracks", so it's all a matter of preference. Yet the lack of lossless audio on the Hisaishi and Mont Alto scores is disappointing, especially since neither disc is exactly overflowing with content.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
Featuring a basic and classy interface with relatively quick loading time (prefaced by a short video clip touting the new restorations), standard options include chapter selection, audio setup, and bonus feature access. This two-disc release is housed in a dual-hubbed keepcase with attractive cover art; no insert or slipcover are included.
Again, things are a little complicated here. One new extra is exclusive to this release: a full-length Audio Commentary
for The General
with historians Michael Schlesinger and Stan Taffel, who go into detail about the film's production and lasting impact. Other topics of discussion include Buster's early career, historical accuracy, supporting characters and cameos, "the business side" with producer Joseph Schenck, lost silent films, Buster's visual stylings, shooting locations in Oregon, playing baseball on the train, It's a Wonderful Life, and much more. This a detailed and entertaining track; I learned quite a bit from this, as I don't recall any previous releases of The General
featuring a commentary.
Otherwise, most of the extras from the 2016 boxed set---and, by extension, the 2012 boxed set---are carried over. The General includes separate TV Introductions from Orson Welles and Gloria Swanson, as well as the vintage short film "Return of The General". Meanwhile, Three Ages gets two short Television Segments featuring Keaton (an Alka-Seltzer commercial and a clip from Candid Camera), plus D.W. Griffith's prehistoric short film Man's Genesis. Overall, a small but interesting collection of film-specific supplements and pop culture curiosities.
Featuring new 2K restorations supplied by French distributor Lobster Films, this double feature of Buster Keaton's The General and Three Ages plays very well on Blu-ray. Having never seen the latter, it's a worthy companion to perhaps his most famous film but obviously not the main selling point here. Both films look and sound better than ever (although Cohen Film Collection's 4K restorations of The General and other Keaton films are rumored for release soon) with multiple score options and a new audio commentary; however, most of these contents seem to be identical to those in the Keaton boxed set from November 2016. Fans who have yet to own either film on Blu-ray should consider this a Recommended double feature, assuming you don't want to wait for the inevitable Cohen release.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.