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Mont Alto Private Reserve presents
"Three men stole my General. I think they are deserters."
DVD ReviewBuster Keaton's The General is another one of those great films where the reviewer can hardly do anything beyond throw up his hands. What new can be said about a classic of comedy that has been endlessly studied and dissected, beyond the fact that it has a high reputation, and it's one that's richly deserved? If you haven't seen it, you need to.
Keaton stars as Johnnie Gray, a railroad engineer in Civil War era Marietta, Georgia. When the war begins, he attempts to volunteer for the Confederacy, to please his sweetheart, Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack), but is rejected (unbeknownst to him, his position as an engineer is determined to be more valuable to the cause than using him as a foot soldier). Despondent, he continues to run his beloved locomotive, the General, to Annabelle Lee's disdain. When a Union spy, Captain Anderson (Glen Cavender), steals the General to take her north and destroy every bridge along the way, Annabelle Lee is kidnapped along with the train, and Johnnie Gray must use whatever means necessary to get his train back.
The 75-minute film, based on real life events, is a model of storytelling efficiency. There's hardly a moment of fat, with virtually every second devoted to moving the picture forward. While there are plenty of gags, some of them among Keaton's best, they're all in service of the story. Particularly humorous is a series of sight gags as Keaton seizes another train, with a cannon behind it, followed by his futile attempts to fire at the Union soldiers, getting himself in increasingly dangerous situations. His singleminded pursuit of his goal makes for plenty of opportunities for both suspense and humor, with much laughter inspired by Johnnie Gray's lack of awareness of his surroundings. The first indication of this trait is seen early on in the classic sequence of Keaton sitting on the siderod of the parked locomotive, completely insensible to the fact that it's starting to move until he finally reacts just as the train disappears into a tunnel.
Keaton's reactions (or lack thereof) are the source of much of the humor, but Marion Mack also manages to inspire laughs as she suffers a series of bizarre indignities, including being tied up in a sack by Keaton. The sequence in which Gray is hiding under a table where three Union generals (including among them his father, Joe Keaton) discuss battle plans is the weakest part of the picture, since it feels abruptly stationary. Of course, given the frenetic pace of the action aboard the train both before and after, a bit of a breather was certainly called for. But before long things are back in motion, and even during the static scenes Keaton manages to make the humorous most of his predicament.
The commentary attempts to make the case that this isn't in fact a comedy, and there is some merit to that notion. It's full of suspense, drama and action, though all of it is indubitably leavened with humor. If you're not familiar with Keaton, this is a great place to start, since The General is fun from start to finish. Even if you are a fan of the movie, this disc is a great way to reacquaint yourself with it. As of this writing, the DVD is available only from Mont Alto directly at www.mont-alto.com. Although privately produced, it is not a DVD-R, so compatibility should not be a concern.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A-
Image Transfer Review: The DVD offers a lovely print of The General, with very little damage beyond modest speckling and an occasional moment of slight shrinkage. Flicker is apparent throughout, but there's no ghosting or other issues that all too often crop up with presentations of silent films. Best of all, the print has superb greyscale throughout, making it look almost like a modern re-creation of a silent film at times. The picture has been very slightly windowboxed to help with the usual television overscan. Most of the film is in sepia toning, with a short nighttime segment done in a dark blue. It's hard to imagine this looking much better.
Image Transfer Grade: A-
Audio Transfer Review: Mont Alto provides a new compilation score of highly appropriate tunes that were available in 1927 for use in silent film scoring. There are a broad range of moods represented, and the score is quite enjoyable without attracting undue attention to itself. The audio reproduction is first rate, with no noise or hiss present. The violin and piano tend to dominate a bit, but they sound very good, with nice presence. I didn't note much directionality from the instruments, though that's not really a problem since that could have distracted.
Audio Transfer Grade: A-
Disc ExtrasStatic menu with music
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in (musical pieces) with remote access
1 Other Trailer(s)1 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Rodney Sauer and Howie Movshovitz
Extras Review: A nice selection of extras are provided, with emphasis on silent film scoring, unsurprisingly. Rodney Sauer, leader of the Mont Alto Orchestra, and Howie Movshovitz offer a thorough and chatty commentary that's very appreciative of Keaton's artistry and Sauer also contributes remarks about the musical selections used. If you want to know more about the performance practice of the silent era, Sauer gives a demonstration (12m:30s) of the original cue sheet compiled by James Bradford, making observations about different ways of approaching the same film. It's quite illuminating what a big difference the score can make, changing the emphasis from slapstick comedy to comic adventure.
Other miscellaneous extras include a handy optional subtitle track that identifies the title, composer and date of each and every composition used on the musical score, a pseudo-trailer compiled by Mont Alto, and an option for Intermission music (hardly necessary on a 75-minute picture, it seems to me, but it's here if you want it).
Extras Grade: B+
Final CommentsMont Alto offers one of the finest prints I've seen of The General, one of Buster Keaton's best pictures, with a thoughtful score in an excellent transfer. This beautiful, easily-overlooked package is very highly recommended. No reason to hesitate.
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