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Studio: Kino International
Cast: Buster Keaton, Marion Mack, Glen Cavender, Joe Keaton
Director: Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman
Release Date: November 10, 2009
Rating: Not Rated for (comic violence)
Run Time: 01h:18m:52s
"Three men stole my General. I think they are deserters."
- Johnnie Gray (Buster Keaton)
There's a sense that Blu-ray is just an improvement for recenet effects-laden extravaganzas. Bucking that trend, Kino offers up the first Blu-ray presentation of a silent film in America (the British disc of Sunrise having beaten it to the punch. But can an 85-year old film hold up in the HD era?
Movie Grade: A+
DVD Grade: B-
The answer is an emphatic yes. The HD transfer here is truly delicious and lends a film-like appearance to the video presentation, with plenty of detail visible in the sepia-toned picture. From the wood-grained title cards to the textures of the costumes to the detail on the wallpaper seen on the walls, the picture here looks splendid. There's not any significant ghosting or edge enhancement that I noticed. The upgrade is definitely worthwhile. The audio is also HD, with the Carl Davis score from the 1987 Thames Television presentation included in both DTS MA-HD and a standard stero version. Your choices don't stop there, since esteemed composer Robert Israel contributes a second score, and an organ score by Lee Erwin used in the Raymond Rohauer versions of the feature are here as well, though these are in standard DD 2.0 format.
On to the movie itself. Buster 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?
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, and his futile attempts to fire at the Union, getting in increasingly dangerous situations. His single-minded pursuit of his goals 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 extras are a little spare here, with the most interesting one being an 18m rundown of the true-life locomotive chase, and a tour of the actual General that took part in that chase. A 5m clip of various Keaton stunts and gags involving trains, streetcars and trams demonstrates the comic's fondness for them and his ingenuity for situations. John Bengston, author of Silent Echoes provides a 4m tour of the locations used in Oregon to simulate Georgia, and a few seconds of home movies by the locals (mostly demonstrating how annoyed Keaton was to have these people wandering onto his set). Finally, there are two intros for the film by Gloria Swanson and Orson Welles from 1960s and 70s television showings. The Swanson one is pretty insubstantial, though Welles offers an overview of Keaton's career that makes a good introduction for those not too familiar with him. All of the extras are presented in HD, at least (though the intros appear to have been shot on video in the first place, so there's not much to be gleaned from the improved presentation there). The package is wrapped up with a gallery of upwards of 75 stills and promotional materials (including several stills from a deleted scene that apparently no longer exists).
Posted by: Mark Zimmer - November 14, 2009, 9:32 am - DVD Review
Keywords: civil war, trains, slapstick
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