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Kino on Video presents
The General (Ultimate Two-Disc Edition) (1926)

"Three men stole my General. I think they are deserters."
- Johnnie Gray (Buster Keaton)

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: November 10, 2008

Stars: Buster Keaton, Marion Mack
Director: Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:18m:47s
Release Date: November 11, 2008
UPC: 738329063726
Genre: comedy

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- A-B+B B

DVD Review

Charlie Chaplin has probably gotten the most ink as the great clown of silent pictures, but I've always been more of a Buster Keaton guy—it's like the 1920s version of the Beatles-versus-Stones debate, and you can't come out a loser. Chaplin was frequently hilarious but too often maudlin for my taste; Buster's deadpan, on the other hand, has aged extraordinarily well, and remains some of the funniest stuff ever committed to celluloid. Kino favors us with a two-disc edition of what may be his most ambitious film, and it's a treat, both for Keaton fans and for the uninitiated.

And that's most ambitious, but not necessarily his best—I've always been partial to Sherlock Jr., and I'm not alone: it's a crucial piece of source material for The Purple Rose of Cairo, for instance, and Steamboat Bill Jr. belongs on anyone's short list as well. The General is really little more than an extended, zany chase sequence, one done with extraordinary panache, and what's absolutely staggering about it are the physical risks so obviously on display in the filmmaking. It's a mistake to talk about silent pictures as primitive—it gives too much credit to us, for one thing—but what's so striking is that this movie was pulled off without even the most rudimentary special effects. All those wacky and dangerous things are happening, on screen and in real time—it's clear that Buster would do anything for a laugh, and he may be the starting point for the cascade of cinematic comedic anarchy that flows through the Marx Brothers, to Jerry Lewis, to Jim Carrey.

Okay, so the movie itself. Keaton's incarnation of his stock character this time out is Johnnie Gray, a train engineer, and the steward of the title character, not a military man, but a locomotive engine. It's 1861, and Johnnie bats his eyes at a pretty little Georgia peach, Annabelle Lee, played by Mabel Mack—but interfering with their courtship are the first shots fired on Fort Sumter, and the War Between the States is on. Annabelle's brother and father enlist immediately in General Lee's army, and she expects Johnnie to do the same—but they won't have him, saying that he's more valuable to the Confederacy if he's working on the railroad, all the livelong day. Annabelle isn't buying it, though—she'll only give her heart to a man in uniform.

As they frequently do, circumstances conspire to give our hero the unlikely opportunity to demonstrate his improbable heroism. The General falls into the hands of some dastardly Yankees—Johnnie plans to steal it back from them, and alert the Confederate Army to the impending attack. Almost all of the movie, then, is a mad chase along the railroad tracks, in which Johnnie uses ingenuity, nineteenth-century technology, and a whole lot of plain old dumb luck to foil the villains. One of the things that's striking is that there's no shortage of violence—you don't think of it that way originally, but really, this is a war film, and we see more than our fair share of soldiers killed in action. And the physical stunts that Keaton and company pulls off are grand and frequently frightening in their scale—they're the kinds of things that nobody today would be audacious (or stupid) enough even to try. If they're not insane, they're certainly uninsurable. Things hurtle to their inevitable and expected happy ending—it wouldn't be a Keaton picture without one, and the small, sweet moments endure much more than do some of the bloated ones. It's stunning, for instance, to see a train try to travel across a burning bridge and crash into the river below, but it's not really a belly laugh. Keaton's sly smile gives us enough of those, however, and he's so pleased with himself by the end of the story that you half believe that the South will rise again.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The tinted print (sepia for daytime; gray for night) has its fair share of acid burn and bacterial decay—given the throwaway nature of early filmmaking, however, this one doesn't look as roughed up as some. And a few of the images, of the battles and the trains especially, maintain enough crispness to make even Matthew Brady proud.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0musical score onlyyes
Dolby Digital
musical score onlyyes

Audio Transfer Review: What, faithful dOc reader, could be more compelling than my discussion of the audio transfer of a silent movie? The options here are surprisingly bountiful, actually. Carl Davis conducts the Thames Silent Orchestra in a track available both in stereo and 5.1 Dolby Digital; this is probably the way to go, but interesting too are a theater organ score by Lee Erwin (in 2.0 only) and yet another score, arranged and directed by Robert Israel (also in 2.0 only). They're all pretty clean tracks; as you could probably guess, they're all heavy with many bars from Dixie.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 16 cues and remote access
1 Documentaries
5 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Amaray Double
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. photo gallery
Extras Review: It is, presumably, the extras on the second disc of the set that earn this the superlative as an Ultimate Two-Disc Edition. It starts with a video tour (18m:03s) of the authentic General, at a Georgia museum—a curator there provides lot of details, and it's informative in a fourth grade class trip kind of way. Film historian John Bengtson provides a brief guide (4m:29s) to some of the filming locations in and around Cottage Grove, Oregon—Bengtson's book Silent Echoes is an extraordinary bit of cinematic detective work, tracking Keaton's location shoots, and this is just a taste.

Brief behind-the-scenes footage (1m:01s) shows us trains on tracks, and Buster setting up shots; The Buster Express (5m:48s) is a montage of Keaton and train gags from throughout his body of work. We're also favored with two introductions to the film, that look as if they were shot for the early days of television, in an effort to make hay out of the silents catalog. Hello, Norma, darling, let's get a good look at you—Gloria Swanson provides the first (2m:13s), chatting up the virtues of silent pictures in the age of talkies. And in full-bore portly Paul Masson mode, Orson Welles provides the second (12m:21s), offering personal reminiscences of Keaton, along with clips from many of Keaton's other pictures. Finally, there's a photo gallery, offering a good selection of stills from the set, and an assortment of international posters for the feature.

Extras Grade: B


Final Comments

One of the great achievements by the best of the silent clowns, it's a film still full of belly laughs and almost incomprehensible stunts and gags. It's a treat both for Keaton die-hards and those new to the party, and that's not whistling Dixie.


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