The General/Three Ages & Steamboat Bill, Jr./College
Studio: Kino Lorber
Feb 06, 2017
Often overshadowed by those of his more famous contemporary, Charlie Chaplin, the silent comedies of the great Buster Keaton seem to rarely get the respect they're due. Home video label Kino Lorber have done their part in boosting Buster’s legacy with various special editions over the years, but with two new dual pack releases – each containing one of his revered masterpieces paired alongside one of his stronger, second-tier features – they present perhaps the best-ever opportunity for new fans to be introduced to the great comedian and filmmaker’s works.
A grand scale comedy set against the backdrop of the Civil War, The General stars Keaton as a Southern railroad engineer suddenly caught in the conflict when his train, The General, is hijacked by Union saboteurs with his beloved on board. (It’s inspired – quite loosely – by a real event.) Stacked with some stunning set pieces, many filmed on actual, moving trains, The General is deservedly regarded as one of Keaton’s best, even if it tanked at the time and wound up detrimental to his career. (A train wreck near the film’s end was, for a long time, the most expensive piece of stunt work ever filmed.) Favorite gag: Keaton clinging to the locomotive’s cow-catcher and tossing a railroad tie at the right moment to flip another off the tracks, preventing a wreck; just the exact timing involved in pulling this off is impressive. It’s a little mind-blowing to think that there were still many people around who had lived through the Civil War when the film was released; many of the film’s props were actually leftovers from the War.
Its dance partner in this particular collection, Three Ages, is one of Keaton’s more underrated films. It tells three pointedly similar love stories, with different Keaton-played characters wooing comely young women, set in three different eras of human history: prehistoric times, Ancient Rome, and the modern day (or, the 1920s, as it was.) Outside of one very funny chase scene in the film’s final act, it doesn’t have many of the wild stunts audiences typically look for in Keaton’s films, which is probably why it gets overlooked. Still, there’s a lot of humor to be found in contemporary courtship rituals playing out among cave people and Roman legions. (Plus, Keaton playing his standard effete, weakling character as a caveman is comedy gold.) Biggest laugh, however: Keaton falling off a building, through several awnings, being launched through a window, subsequently sliding down a fire pole and then winding up on the back of a fire engine as it pulls out of a station -- this all happens in the space of about 30 seconds. Extra features on this two-disc set include vintage intros by famous fans Orson Welles and Gloria Swanson (for The General) and a documentary about the train of the same name, an Alka Seltzer commercial and Candid Camera segment starring an elderly Keaton, an excerpt from a D.W. Griffith film parodied by Three Ages, and your choice of multiple musical scores.
The star of the second volume is 1928’s Steamboat Bill, Jr., the last film Keaton made while at the height of his creative power. Keaton stars as the disappointing son of a proud and steamboat captain, who falls for the daughter of his dad’s main competitor. Pops winds up in prison and it’s up to Junior to bust him out, but then a cyclone tears through town and little Willie’s naturally the one to save the day. This is our personal favorite of Keaton’s filmography, and the final sequence – in which jet engines were used to create the strong winds, and an entire fake town was built and subsequently blown apart – is one of comedy’s greatest scenes. (You’ll be hard pressed to find a funnier bit of physical comedy than where Keaton fights against the blowing wind, his body standing upright at better than a 45-degree angle.) The film contains his best-known stunt, where a building façade collapses over him – leaving Keaton standing safely in the frame of a window. If Keaton’s measurements for the stunt had been just inches off, the two-ton façade surely would killed him.
Steamboat Bill comes along with College, a breezy, sports-themed comedy from 1927. In the film, Keaton plays a nebbish student who tries his hand at various athletics (to expectedly poor results) in order to impress a girl. The movie has lots of funny bits, but also a highly unfortunate routine that Keaton performs in blackface. (Even Lillian Gish, star of D.W. Griffith’s immensely racist The Birth of a Nation, and who appears in a vintage introduction for the film, seems pretty uncomfortable about that particular sequence of the film.) Among other bonus features on this set you’ll find audio commentaries for each film, another vintage Alka Seltzer ad, several choices for scores, and 1966’s The Scribe, an industrial film which would be Keaton’s final on-screen appearance.
Presented in brand-new restorations, all four movies look as good as imaginably possible considering they’re nearly a century old. Both volumes are absolutely worth picking up. If we had to recommend one over the other, though, we’d have to go with the set which includes Steamboat Bill, Jr. and College. We’ll argue that Steamboat is the best of these four great old movies, and the commentaries included here are indispensable. (On the other set, only The General gets a commentary.) Out of all of the fantastic bonus features included on these discs, these tracks provide the most context for the films themselves and really increase their educational value for those interested in these movies for their place in cinematic history (as well as some of the best visual gags ever committed to celluloid.)
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