Michael Brooke has reviewed the Region 0 DVD release of The General
This DVD is part of Kino’s The Art of Buster Keaton, a series of ten DVDs (available separately or as a box set with a bonus DVD) covering the complete output of Buster Keaton from 1920 to 1928, by far his most fertile and creative period. Each DVD contains between two and four films, so the rating for picture quality applies only to the main feature. All Keaton’s silent films were originally shot in 4:3, so you wouldn’t expect an anamorphic image, and the DVDs have been transferred at the correct frame rate. The rating for sound refers to the quality and appropriateness of the musical score – in all cases, the recording itself is in perfectly serviceable digital stereo. There are no extras apart from the supporting shorts.
If anyone thought that the relatively low-key nature of Seven Chances, Go West and Battling Butler showed a decline from the magnificent features of 1923 and 1924, The General (1926) triumphantly proved them wrong. That said, although it’s now universally regarded not only as Buster Keaton’s supreme masterpiece but one of the greatest silent films (not to mention screen comedies) full stop, it took an amazingly long time to achieve the recognition it deserved: not only was it a disastrous box-office flop on its original release but it also got mostly dreadful reviews from people who really should have known better.
From first frame to last, The General is an astounding achievement. As a comedy, it’s consistently inventive and hilarious (even by today’s standards: I’ve seen it in the cinema several times, and it’s been greeted with constant laughter and even applause on every occasion), but the film’s virtues go far deeper than that. Keaton’s passion for authenticity, coupled with the biggest budget he ever had to work with, meant that he could recreate the American Civil War with astonishing accuracy (it wipes the floor with the more stagey, studio-bound likes of Gone with the Wind). With a visual style inspired by the contemporary photographs of Matthew Brady, and the result is one of the most sheerly beautiful films of the whole silent era.
But, crucially, Keaton never lets this passion for authenticity slow the film down. Running at an admirably tight 75 minutes, it moves like a rocket, never more so during the two great locomotive chases that make up the bulk of the running time. Keaton historian Jim Kline claims that no fewer than 70% of the shots in the film feature a moving camera, an amazing number considering that The General was made fifty years before the invention of the Steadicam at a time when many other films were resolutely stagebound.
Keaton plays Johnnie Gray, a train driver who has two great passions: his locomotive, the ‘General’, and Miss Annabelle Lee, though the second of these is rather less keen on him, especially after he’s turned down when he tries to enlist as a soldier in the Confederate army (typically for bureaucrats in Keaton films, they never bother to tell him that he was turned down because his skills as a train driver were more important to them than his fighting prowess, leaving both him and, crucially, Annabelle to assume that he’s merely a pathetic wimp).
So Johnnie’s life trundles on uneventfully until one day his beloved ‘General’ is kidnapped by Union spies – with Annabelle on board. Quickly commandeering a similar locomotive, the ‘Texas’, he gives chase, trying to undo the damage on the way while being shot at both by enemy rifles and self-inflicted cannon fire. And when he gets behind enemy lines – there’s a great night-time suspense scene when he inadvertently finds himself under the very table where key tactics are being plotted – he has to rescue Annabelle and the ‘General’ and get back home unscathed.
Keaton’s control of this material – apparently based on a true story – is masterly throughout, whether it’s the large-scale set-pieces (including what was then the single most expensive shot in film history, where the ‘Texas’ plunges to its doom after it attempts to cross a burning bridge – it’s quite obviously done for real, and indeed the wreck of the train was a popular Georgia tourist attraction for decades afterwards!) or the smaller, more intimate moments, such as the now iconic shot of a lovesick Keaton sitting on the metal bar joining the wheels of his train, oblivious to the fact that it’s starting to move. True, the romance is a little perfunctory – to be honest, the only romantic subplot that’s ever convinced me in a Keaton film is the one between him and the cow Brown Eyes in Go West – but given the riches on offer elsewhere that’s a very minor point. In all other respects, the film is an unqualified masterpiece – it was Keaton’s own personal favourite of all his films, and no wonder.
Gratifyingly, Kino have done a very impressive job with the DVD transfer. Although it’s not quite up to the standard set by Seven Chances, the print is generally in very good condition (a few spots, scratches and minor blotches aside), pleasingly sharp with lots of fine detail, and with a wide dynamic range. Even better, it’s been given a slight sepia tint, which reinforces the impression that it’s been torn straight from the history books (come to think of it, when the film was made the Civil War was more recent than The General is to us now!), with night scenes given an equally subtle blue shading. Some of the toning in Kino’s collection has come off very badly – The Saphead and the opening of Seven Chances being cases in point – so I’m delighted to report no problems on that score here.
Robert Israel’s music is very impressive, making witty and apposite use of themes drawn from popular songs of the period (‘John Brown’s Body’, ‘Swanee River’ and so on), but always firmly integrating them to the demands of the narrative – this is certainly one of the best music tracks in the whole Keaton collection. There’s also a very generous selection of nineteen chapter stops – which rather begs the question as to why Kino have been so sparing in this department with some of their other titles.
Befitting the stature of the main feature, Kino have sensibly decided to programme it with two of Keaton’s most celebrated shorts. The 18-minute Cops (1922) is widely regarded as his masterpiece in that form, though I’d argue that half a dozen other shorts are at least as good. That said, it’s a perfect introduction to his work, and is crammed with characteristic Keaton motifs.
As ever, he’s an underachieving innocent whose would-be girlfriend will have nothing to do with him unless he proves himself as a businessman. A series of accidents leaves him in possession of a genuine businessman’s wallet, and a con man, noticing his good fortune, pretends to be homeless and so desperately in need of money that he’s prepared to sell all his furniture. Keaton buys it off him – sublimely unaware of the fact that the furniture actually belongs to a family who are moving house.
Similar cases of mistaken identity follow until he ends up driving a horse and cart loaded with furniture through the middle of a police parade. An anarchist throws a bomb that lands next to him just when he was looking for something to light his cigarette with – he uses the bomb’s fuse, and tosses the bomb away. It explodes in the middle of a crowd of policemen – and the rest of the film consists of a wildly inventive series of sight gags where Keaton is pursued by every cop in the city, leading to some of the most famous images from his entire career.
The print is generally in very good condition, bar the inevitable age-related spots and scratches, and has a pleasingly wide dynamic range – though the transfer is a bit on the soft side. The music is by Gaylord Carter, and is mostly organ based – it does the job effectively enough, but for the most part it’s generic silent-film fare. There are five chapter stops.
The 23-minute The Playhouse (1921) is very different, being set entirely in a vaudeville theatre exactly like the ones Keaton more or less grew up in – it’s comfortably his most directly autobiographical film, though it also contains the most complicated special effects he would attempt until Sherlock Jr a couple of years later. As an audience member (played by Keaton) remarks to his companion (also played by Keaton), “This Keaton fellow seems to be the whole show”, and to underline this there are six Keaton musicians (plus conductor) in the orchestra pit and no fewer than nine singing and dancing on stage at the same time (an amazing bit of choreography, quite apart from the technical achievement).
All this, though, turns out to have been dreamed by a humble stage-hand, the only real Keaton character, and the rest of the film charts the various mishaps that befall him and the performers during a typical variety show. The performing monkey escapes, so Keaton has to go on in its place; a man’s beard catches on fire, yet the glass cabinet marked ‘Fire’ contains an axe; an act involving a woman staying underwater for implausible lengths of time goes wrong, so Keaton first tries to empty the tank with a cup then, thinking better of it, resorts to a sledgehammer and floods the audience out of the theatre. There’s also a romantic subplot involving identical twin sisters, just one of whom fancies him – needless to say, it takes some time for Keaton to realise that there are two girls, and there’s a lovely routine involving mirrors that gets him even more confused.
The print is in excellent physical condition, but suffers from being somewhat soft and murky, though never obtrusively so. The music is once again by Robert Israel, and is mostly piano and violin based (though it’s a little jarring when the orchestra strikes up that there’s no attempt at matching the instruments shown on screen). Chapter stops have been set at a generous six.
As regular readers of DVD Times will know, The General is also available in a Region 2 version, reviewed elsewhere. Not having seen it myself, I can’t compare specifics such as picture quality, though the Kino version is clearly superior in terms of content, as it throws in The Playhouse as well as Cops. And if you’re new to the work of one of the twentieth century’s greatest comic geniuses, this DVD is arguably the best place to start – all three films are bona fide classics, and Kino have done a terrific job at presenting them to their best advantage.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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