The General and Three Ages (Kino Lorber, NR)

It’s an extremely well-rounded release, the two films contained in it being a very inspired match.

There isn’t a lot to express but excitement at the advent of not one but two Buster Keaton Blu-ray double features released by Kino. Here we have some of Keaton’s most important films along with a few small but enjoyable featurettes, all in two convenient packages. The first package contains The General, arguably Keaton’s most recognized film, and Three Ages, his very first feature.

The General tells the story of Keaton as railroad conductor in the South on the first day of Confederate enlistment in the Civil War. After being refused entry into the army, he is shunned by his girlfriend and her family. When she is kidnapped by bandits on a stolen locomotive, Keaton must forge his own battle with the ne’er-do-wells to save his beloved and prove himself worthy of General status. Some of the most famous silent-movie stunts occur in this film, such as Keaton hurling wooden planks at other wooden planks from the front of a moving train and being thrown to the tracks from an above water tower spray. The resulting fall was so hard and fast that Keaton actually broke his neck, although he would remain unaware of the injury until told about it by a doctor several years later.

All of Keaton’s greatest trademarks make up the film, including dangerous gags, phenomenal misdirection, and the time-tested story of humiliated underdog claiming the day. Less recognized is the score, which I have always found to be the perfect emulsifier of Keaton’s varied talents, the upbeat folk-tune quality painting him as the little engine that could.  

Three Ages is a parody of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, using the same multi-story formula to depict a man’s pursuit of love in the Stone-age, the Roman Empire, and in modern day (as in 1923). In each story, Keaton suggests that love is the enduring quality of humanity but also suggests that love remains constant throughout time; in the manner of romance and in the manner of rejection. That is, humiliation—one of Keaton’s many fortes. Though, in the spirit of mostly optimistic, silent-era comedy, love also remains constant in the way of happy endings. It’s possible that not all of his conclusions still hold up. But who can dismiss these ideals when expressed so eloquently through impressive sight gags, stunts, and comedic gestures? While not matching some of Keaton’s later works, it still contains the charm, warmth, and surprises that embody his greatest, just in smaller terms.

There are, of course, plenty of great set pieces that work perfectly with Buster’s style. He launches himself from a tree-catapult to save the object of his affection. A sequence in a Roman palace has plenty of daring stunts. Buster Keaton is the original Jackass, hurling himself to the next mark and pole vaulting with a spear. To round it off, plenty of perfectly timed, car-related gags appear in satisfying numbers in the modern day scenes. With these comic spectacles intermingling with the story’s sincerity and humble sense of self-deprecation, Keaton’s first feature is right in line with the rest of his silent, vaudevillian artistry.

Some of the more notable featurettes that come with this release are a vintage Alka-Seltzer commercial featuring a middle-aged Keaton and a creepy Claymation boy. A clip from D.W. Griffith’s Man’s Genesis shows the Stone Age setting that Keaton parodies in the first segment of Three Ages. In terms of picture and video quality, the images suffer from occasional but noticeable degradation in Three Ages, but are very crisp in the well-preserved shots nonetheless. With The General being more recognized and preserved, this isn’t as much of a problem. Audio-wise, you get the choice of scores by Robert Israel for both General and Three Ages, or Joe Hisaishi and Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra for General and Three Ages, respectively. Additionally, General comes with a short documentary film of restoration of the original General locomotive used in the film, and Three Ages contains an extremely tame Candid Camera segment starring Keaton. It’s an extremely well-rounded release, the two films contained in it being a very inspired match. | Nic Champion          

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