The General/Three Ages (Blu-ray)Clark Douglas
Two classic silent films in one great package!
In recent years, the good folks at Kino Lorber have done a remarkable job with their assorted DVD and Blu-ray releases of Buster Keaton’s filmography. Pretty much everything of significance has been covered at this point, and silent film buffs with an ample amount of spending money will undoubtedly want to check out Kino Lorber’s extraordinary 16-disc box set of Keaton flicks. However, those who are looking to sample Keaton’s work for the first time may want to consider one of Kino Lorber’s new, discounted releases featuring two Keaton gems for the price of one.
The star attraction of this particular package is unquestionably The General, widely regarded as one of the greatest silent films ever made. Keaton stars as earnest train engineer Johnnie Gray, who loves his fiancee Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack) nearly as much as he loves his beautiful locomotive The General. Alas, there is precious little time for romance: the American Civil War is just beginning, and it’s time to enlist. Johnny is a proud southerner, and eagerly volunteers to join the Confederate Army. However, the military feels that he is doing valuable work in his current job, and rejects his application. A series of misunderstandings lead Annabelle to believe that Johnnie is a coward, and she refuses to marry him until he is in uniform. However, when the Union Army steals The General (with Annabelle aboard!), Johnnie finds himself thrust into the unlikely role of action hero.
Nearly a century after its original release, I remain awestruck by the dazzling stuntwork Keaton pulls off in this film. It’s a remarkable fusion of rousing action-adventure mayhem and feather-light comedic grace, with Keaton using his gift for physical comedy to make death-defying feats look almost effortless. The General was one of the most expensive films of its era, containing large-scale war scenes, hundreds of extras and (spoiler alert) even a spectacular train crash sequence featuring the destruction of an actual locomotive, but Keaton ensures that the film never loses its personality. His stone-faced, lovesick, earnest young man is the melancholy heart of this spectacle, and his feelings are real no matter how outlandish the gags get.
Regrettably, it took a little too long for people to appreciate what Keaton was doing: the film flopped at the box office, and critics savaged Keaton for daring to use the Civil War as the backdrop for a cheerful comedy. The film’s failure was the first step in Keaton’s professional downfall, leading to a loss of creative freedom that would ultimately rob Keaton of his spark. Even so: history has vindicated him, and The General is an ideal introduction to his genius.
The 1923 film Three Ages is certainly a lesser work (almost anything would be), but still an ambitious, interesting effort. The film cuts between three different plots set in three different time periods: The Stone Age, Ancient Rome and modern society. In each, Keaton humorously demonstrates the way romance has (or hasn’t) evolved over time, drawing direct lines from the primitive brutishness of the prehistoric era to the more “civilized” romance of the 20th century.
Each storyline is a variation on the same idea: Keaton is a timid young man who wishes to woo a beautiful woman (always played by Margaret Leahy), but must compete with a bigger, more aggressive suitor (always played by the hulking Wallace Beery). The film amounts to little more than a series of goofy gags (and its women-as-objects perspective hasn’t exactly aged well), but it’s consistently fun. My favorite sequence is a bit from the Roman era, when Keaton attempts to befriend a lion (played by a man wearing a lion suit), but there are an abundance of laugh-out-loud moments scattered throughout.
Surprisingly, both films have been given brand new 2K restorations and some new supplemental material, so this isn’t a mere repackaging. While both movies have some built-in flaws due to their age (particularly Three Ages), Kino Lorber has done an impressive job of tidying up both and offering stable, fairly detailed transfers. You have two audio options for each film: The General gives you scores by Robert Israel and Joe Hisaishi, while Three Ages offers scores by Israel and the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra (having the alternate options provides fun motivation for repeat viewings). In terms of supplements, The General gets an audio commentary from historians Michael Schlesinger and Stan Taffel, vintage introductions from Orson Welles and Gloria Swanson and the short film “Return of the General.” Meanwhile, Three Ages gets two archival TV clips featuring Keaton and the D.W. Griffith short “Man’s Genesis.”
Offered at a refreshingly reasonable price and given handsome new transfers, this 2-for-1 package of Keaton gems earns an easy recommendation.