The General (1926) and Three Ages (1923) (Blu-ray Review)

The General (1926)


The General holds the distinction of being one of the two most famous Buster Keaton films ever made, and consequently the one most often seen even by those who might resist silent cinema. And what a film it is. The General spends the vast majority of its hour and fifteen minute runtime in a breathless chase sequence, with stunts that become ever more elaborate as Keaton and his crew risk life and limb for the sake of a good joke. In this new restoration from Kino Lorber and Lobster Films, we can finally watch The General in all its gorgeous glory (and in the original aspect ratio!).

Keaton is Johnnie Grey, an engineer on the Western & Atlantic Railroad who loves two things: his engine The General, and his girl Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack). When the Civil War breaks out, Annabelle pressures Johnnie to enlist, but the Confederate Army thinks that he’d be more useful as an engineer than as a soldier. Believing her man is a coward, Annabelle refuses to have anything more to do with Johnnie until he puts on a uniform. Fast forward a year, and Annabelle is traveling on the Western & Atlantic to go see her father, who has been injured further North. Little does she – or Johnnie – know, but The General is the target for Union saboteurs, who steal the train with Annabelle still on board. Johnnie gives chase, vowing to bring back his engine and his girl.

The stunts in The General are some of the most remarkable that Keaton would ever pull off, with the comedian riding on the cow catcher, running over the top of the train cars, firing cannons around bends, and setting a bridge on fire. But the stunts also pay off as shocking feats of athletic – and locomotive – prowess that today would take ten stuntmen and lots of insurance forms. The directing and editing of the film plays a large part in The General’s success, maintaining a breakneck speed and elegance that provides a study in continuity editing.

The odd quirks of The General – such as Keaton insisting that the heroes be the Confederate Army, because no one would have sympathy with the Union – don’t serve to undermine it. While the Civil War acts as a backdrop, and there is an undercurrent of the South’s heroism, it’s a very apolitical film, more about the triumph of the little man than about any big victory for the rebels.

Three Ages (1923)


Lesser known than The General or even than the other two films in Kino’s other Keaton collection is Three Ages, an underrated little gem from 1923.

Three Ages gently mocks D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance by taking a similar structure and subject matter, telling of universal human experience through three stories from three different periods of history. Keaton here takes on “love” through the lenses of the Stone Age, the Roman Age, and the Modern Age, each depicted with tongue firmly in cheek. The structure is really just an excuse for Keaton to do his stunts, and the plot is less integral to the stunts than in The General or Steamboat Bill, Jr. But the stunts are, as always, glorious to behold, particularly in the climactic chase scenes at the end of each historical sequence. There are also wonderful little bouts of silliness, as when Keaton’s Roman counterpart runs a chariot race by dog sled, or the acrobatic football game in which the slight comedian faces off against the massive Wallace Beery.

Three Ages is probably one of the sillier Keaton films, and the episodic structure means that the viewer more or less knows what to expect in each sequence. But without being groundbreaking, it’s also quite entertaining.

As with the Steamboat Bill, Jr. and College set, this set from Kino Lorber and Lobster Films features gorgeous 2K restorations of Keaton’s classics, along with a hefty dose of extras on both discs. For the film buffs among us, the audio commentary from film historians on The General is interesting, especially as this is among the best known of Keaton’s works. Three Ages doesn’t receive quite the same attention, though the inclusion of Man’s Genesis, another Griffith film parodied in the Stone Age sequence in Three Ages, is a welcome historical tidbit.Three Ages is unfortunately a visibly damaged film, with several scenes almost obscured by damaged frames. But this restoration thankfully makes even those scenes watchable, and the film is here presented in its entirety.

What’s really most impressive and important in these new Kino releases is the beauty and the care that has gone into the restorations. Thousands of silent films have been lost, and many more have disintegrated beyond repair, so even the smallest attempts to preserve silent film history is welcome in the digital age. And these are not small films, nor are the preservation attempts – they are seminal comedies from one of the greatest comedic minds of his or any other generation, presented with loving attention to detail in crisp digital prints. Embrace these films, watch them, buy them. Support the preservation of our cinematic history. We won’t see anything like this again.

The General/Three Ages is now available from Kino Lorber.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) and College (1927) (Blu-ray Review)

Kino Lorber has a wonderful habit of releasing silent public domain films in proper and worthy restorations, often rivaling the art-house productions of the equally wonderful Criterion Collection. The latest to be restored to 2K glory, in a combined effort from Kino and Lobster Films, are classics from Buster Keaton’s oeuvre, packaged two to a case, and replete with extras that remind us just what a brilliant comedian old Stoneface truly was.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)


Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. dates from 1928, and is Keaton’s last independent silent film before he made the move to MGM. In it, he’s Willie Canfield, Jr., the dandy-ish son of a gruff old steamboat captain (Ernest Torrance) who returns home from college to visit his dear old father. Willie also happens upon his sweetheart Kitty King (Marion Bryan), the daughter of a rival steamboat magnate John King (Tom McGuire). Comedy ensues as Willie Sr. tries to turn his effete son into a hardened old salt, while Willie Jr. must win the girl and rescue his father from being run out of business.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. brings together many of Keaton’s favored and most recognizable tropes: the young dandy trying to win the girl, the son attempting to impress the father, and the little guy facing off against encroaching obsolescence and in danger of being crushed by bigger, wealthier men. The sight gags come thick and fast, building up to the glorious (and famous) hurricane scene in which Keaton destroys most of the set and very nearly gets crushed by a falling building. But while Keaton is known for his acrobatic comedy (seriously – I’ve never seen a man fall on his head quite so much), there’s much to be said for the smaller visual gags that he carries off with such aplomb. In one scene, he attempts to signal to his imprisoned father that the loaf of bread he’s carrying has a file in it, all without tipping off the jailer. Keaton actually uses a song – in a silent film, no less – which he uses to make gestures to indicate the presence of the file. In another scene, he tries on a series of ridiculous hats – quickly discarding each, even his famous pork pie hat that had become his symbol.

The restoration of Steamboat Bill, Jr. is a lovely one, smoothing out the film and avoiding unnecessary crackles and pops so common in silent film restorations. New scores provide punctuation to the silent antics, and the Blu-ray also includes an informative audio commentary from two film historians.

College (1927)


The second disc in this collection is College, another Keaton classic from later in his silent career. As with Steamboat Bill, Jr., College features Keaton as Ronald, a bit of a dandy whose lack of athleticism keeps him from the girl of his dreams, Mary (Anne Cornwall). As he sacrifices his collegiate studies for sports, he finds that he’s completely incapable of playing baseball, going out for track, or rowing…until the Dean forces the rowing coach to take him on as coxswain.

The joke, of course, is that Keaton’s “failed” athletics are spectacularly athletic. As he cycles through every track event, he succeeds in not completing the high jump, knocking over every hurdle (without actually tripping), and endangering the whole track team with his attempts at throwing the javelin. As with many of Keaton’s films, the sight gags and acrobatics become more and more elaborate until the film’s climax, encompassing a boat race followed by a breathless dash from the docks to save Mary.

There are a few minor stumbles in College, however, that slightly cut through its otherwise stellar antics. Ronald’s attempts to find a job to pay for his tuition backfire, leading  to a sequence with Keaton in blackface as a waiter. If you can look past the cringe-worthiness of the sequence, there are some good sight gags, but it’s still a fairly uncomfortable scene.

College is also an excellent restoration, and has an even more elaborate series of extras. In fact, there are two extras film on here: a twenty minute collegiate comedy with Carol Lombard entitled Run, Girl, Run, and The Scribe, which was Keaton’s final onscreen performance. Neither are much to write home about, but they provide diverting entertainment. Film scholars will be further edified by historical commentary, and a tour of College’s filming locations.

There are few comedians like Buster Keaton – even among his fellow silent clowns, he’s uniquely daring in his acrobatics and in his love of cinema. While neither of these films quite hits the calibre of Sherlock Jr. or The General, they are hardly lesser films – they’re just as eye-popping as they were in 1928.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. and College are available in new stellar restorations from Kino beginning February 21.

The Inessentials: The Cameraman

buster keaton busThere’s a friendly rivalry – at least in retrospect – between Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin.  Who is the greatest silent clown? Is it the sweet and genial Little Tramp, or the great Stoneface, equally small and lithe and seemingly always behind the eight ball? Every time I watch a Chaplin film, I’m convinced that it must be Chaplin.  But today, I think that Keaton has the edge.  Because I finally watched The Cameraman.  

In contrast to his acknowledged masterpiece The General, Keaton’s The Cameraman is a smaller film, less heavy on the sight gags and insane stunts, and far more reliant on the gentle nature of his protagonist as he attempts to impress a pretty girl.  But it’s also a story of art and moviemaking, of what constitutes ‘good’ cinema.  Where Sherlock Jr. gave us cinema as narrative magic, The Cameraman gives us cinema verite.

The plot could be just about any Keaton (or Chaplin) film: the scrappy little fellow meets a girl, is smitten and immediately sets about trying to win her heart.  In this case, the way to do that seems to be to become a newsreel cameraman.  Naturally enough, this sets up all the gags we might expect: Keaton attempts to film a Yankees game, only to arrive at an empty stadium.  Never one to be outdone, he plays the game himself, acting as pitcher, batter, umpire and fielders.  Then he tries to film a Tong war with hilarious results that include the near destruction of his camera and his friendship with a monkey.  There are other sketches too: Keaton attempts to change his clothes in a swimming pool dressing room also occupied by another, much larger fellow – watch that one closely, because old Stoneface actually cracks up several times; he loses his bathing suit and must obtain another one; displaced from a bus with his lady love, the old boy rides on the side instead.  As with all Keaton gags, the physical comedy is meticulously constructed, such that we’re almost bored by the seemingly meaningless set-up.  Then the gag hits and the man’s true genius – all that build up, for a moment of exceptional acrobatic hilarity – comes through.

The Cameraman is much more than the sum of its gags, however.  The love story, often secondary in Keaton’s work, comes forward.  Never have I cheered so heartily for the little guy.  His sweetness, and the girl’s apparent disregard for his qualities, is heartbreaking.  His attempts to win her have a tentative nature, though.  She really isn’t callous, nor does she fail to understand him; she simply is uncertain of what she wants.  It’s a complex narrative, and one that evinces a much deeper contemplation of human relationships than usually seen in silent comedies.

the cameraman 1

Keaton’s musings on his own art also impress.  The cameraman’s failure to produce ‘usable’ newsreel footage at first is complicated by the quality of what he does produce.  Simply by accident he overlaps frames of a battleship and Broadway, spools a swimmer diving backwards, and creates a pandemonium of traffic in spliced together footage.  These are scenes that are not only hilarious; they would be welcome in European arthouse films of the same period.  But that’s not what newsreel is about, and the cameraman finally learns where the demands of his profession lie.  The footage he takes of the Tong war is GOOD; intense, close-up scenes of mob violence and knife fights.  Throughout the film, we watch a director directing himself, then see the footage that he produces.  Few contemporary musings on the nature of the cinema art come so directly, and poignantly, to the point.

What Keaton has done with The Cameraman is to draw a parallel between the different forms of cinema, from camera tricks and manipulation to the ability of movies to present reality.  It is a movie that finally convinces the girl that she was wrong about him.  His native understanding of what constitutes good cinema gets him his job.  The cameraman will never be rewarded with a ticker-tape parade, but as far as Keaton is concerned, he should be.  In the end, it is cinema, in all its forms, that tells the inherent truth.