Kino Lorber has just released a splendid two-disc set for Buster Keaton fans, showcasing his films THE GENERAL (1926) and THREE AGES (1923).
Both films are new 2K restorations by Lobster Films, and each film comes with plentiful extras, detailed at the end of this review.
I've come fairly late to enjoying silent films, and the only Keaton silent I'd seen previously was STEAMBOAT BILL, JR. (1928); STEAMBOAT BILL, JR. was shown at the 2015 TCM Classic Film Festival with Carl Davis conducting a live orchestra. This new set was thus a wonderful opportunity for me to enjoy more of Keaton's work.
Keaton plays Johnnie Gray, who wants to sign up for the Confederate army when the Civil War begins, but he's rejected as he's more valuable in his job as a train engineer. The reason for his rejection isn't explained to Johnnie, though, and his sweetheart Annabelle (Marion Mack) doesn't want to talk to him until he's enlisted like her father and brother.
A group of Union "commandos" steal Johnnie's engine, the General -- with Annabelle, Johnnie eventually learns, in an attached storage car. Johnnie must find a way to rescue both...and then race back home ahead of the Union army, in order to warn the South!
There were a great many things that impressed me about the film, starting with the way that the story kept evolving creatively for its full 79 minutes. Keaton's physicality was amazing, in one well-executed comic sequence after another.
I especially enjoyed the last section of the story, with Annabelle fully engaged in the battle along with Johnnie.
While watching the film it was apparent that many of the stunts were filmed as they happened, without special effects, which is rather amazing. Since our daughter now lives there, I was fascinated to learn that THE GENERAL was shot on various locations in Oregon, including around the McKenzie River. According to my post-film reading, Keaton chose the area of Cottage Grove, Oregon, because two parallel tracks allowed him to be filmed on a moving train from a second train running alongside.
Keaton and Clyde Bruckman. The story was inspired by a true incident, which was also the basis for Disney's THE GREAT LOCOMOTIVE CHASE (1956) starring Fess Parker.
It was filmed by Bert Haines and Dev Jennings.
I thoroughly enjoyed and recommend THE GENERAL, presented by Kino Lorber in a lovely print.
The earlier film THREE AGES is described as Keaton's first feature-length comedy. It's intended to parody Griffith's INTOLERANCE (1916), but since I haven't seen that one yet the comparisons were sadly lost on me for this viewing.
In each of the three ages referred to in the title -- caveman era, ancient Rome, and modern day -- the Boy (Keaton) competes with the Villain (Wallace Beery) for the hand of the Girl (Margaret Leahy, in her only film). The Girl's parents (Joe Lawrence and Lillian Roberts) get involved, too, as the film circles round and round among the periods of time, culminating in a satisfying ending.
I found THREE AGES the lesser of the two films, but it's short and sweet at 64 minutes and is amusing. There are some very funny little bits, such as the license plate number on the back of a chariot. Like THE GENERAL, the print looks quite good, especially considering it will be a century old in another half-dozen years.
THREE AGES was directed by Keaton and Edward F. Cline, with cinematography by Elgin Lessley and William McGann. It was fun that I immediately recognized the caveman setting as part of the Iverson Ranch area, which I visited last November.
THE GENERAL and THREE AGES each come with a choice of two musical scores; I listened to the fine Robert Israel tracks for each of these first-time viewings. THE GENERAL also has a commentary track, introductions by Orson Welles and Gloria Swanson, and a short film about the restoration of the train, while THREE AGES also has a D.W. Griffith short, a CANDID CAMERA episode with Buster Keaton, and a Keaton TV commercial.
I reviewed the Blu-ray edition of this set, which is also available from Kino on DVD.
Later this month Kino Lorber will release a second Keaton set on Blu-ray and DVD, consisting of STEAMBOAT BILL, JR. (1928) and COLLEGE (1927). I'll be reviewing that collection at a future date.
Thanks to Kino Lorber for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray collection.