Keaton great and mediocre: My Blu-ray review of The General and The Three Ages

Between 1920 and 1928 – the only years where he had complete control of his own films – Buster Keaton created one of the greatest bodies of work in silent movies. All his comedies from that period have been available on Blu-ray for quite some time, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be reissued with new transfers, extras, and musical scores.

Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films has restored four of Keaton’s features, and Kino Lorber has rereleased them in two packages of two movies each. Oddly, each package contains one of Keaton’s best features, and one of his worst.

I’ll concentrate here on the two-disc package containing The General and Three Ages. I’ll cover the other package, Steamboat Bill, Jr. and College,
soon. The General is widely regarded as Keaton’s masterpiece; an opinion to which I heartily agree. Three Ages, in my opinion, is Keaton’s worst feature.

The General

Keaton’s Civil War opus just might be the most beautiful and spectacular comedy ever filmed – a perfect blending of comedy and epic adventure. He loosely based his movie on an actual Civil War event, then meticulously recreated the setting. He mixed slapstick comedy with battlefield death. He hired thousands of extras and filmed what may be the single most expensive shot of the silent era (then used that shot as the setup for a gag whose punch line is a simple close-up). The result was a critical and commercial flop in 1926, but today it’s rightly considered one of the greatest comedies ever made.

I’ve already written about The General at length, so I won’t go into more details here.

Three Ages

Keaton’s first feature is often called a parody of Intolerance. I disagree. Although D. W. Griffith’s epic clearly inspired Keaton, he never references the older film or makes jokes at its expense.

Keaton used Intolerance‘s basic structure – cutting between multiple stories set in different historical times – for practical reasons. Unsure he would be successful in features, he made a movie that could be easily reedited into three short subjects.

Three Ages tells the same basic love story three times: in caveman days, ancient Rome, and what was then modern times (the early 1920s). It cuts between the stories in a far more formal way than Griffith, which undercuts the pacing. As Intolerance approached its end, Griffith cut quickly between four climaxes, as if they were all happening at once. But Keaton gives us a full climatic sequence for one setting, then starts all over again with the next. Very clumsy.

The movie has its funny moments, but rarely does a gag bring forth more than a mild chuckle. It contains one of Keaton’s most spectacular falls, but that’s just a few seconds out of a 64-minute movie.

If you buy this set, do it for The General, and consider Three Ages a curious extra.

How It Looks

Lobster Films restored both comedies in 2K. Image quality in a silent film is always dependent on the sources available, and these vary.
Neither movie looks significantly better than the previous Blu-ray release.

Both are shown in 1080p.

The General appears to have survived well. The disc ranges in image quality from very good to exceptional. But then, so did Kino’s original Blu-ray release. The big difference: The earlier release was tinted and toned; this one is straight black and white.

Should The General be tinted? According to Ranjit Sandhu, “Some prints of The General [at its original release] were tinted sepia, with blue toning for the nighttime scenes. Other prints were straight black and white. It is probably unknown which version Keaton preferred.”

I must assume that no decent prints of Three Ages survive. At its best, the image looks washed out. Many scenes are extremely scratchy. At its worse, you can barely see the image through the nitrate decomposition.

How It Sounds

Each feature comes with two musical scores. For The General, Kino gives us:

  • Orchestral score by Robert Israel: This rousing score was on the DVD and the original Blu-ray. There’s nothing really exceptional about it, but it carries the story and the comedy well. Kino presents it in uncompressed PCM two-track stereo.
  • Orchestral score by Joe Hisaishi: While beautiful as music, this score is only hit and miss as silent film accompaniment. About half the time Hisaishi manages to capture the sweep and adventure of Keaton’s visuals, and only rarely captures the comedy. It gets better as the climax approaches. Kino presents the recording in lossy Dolby Digital 5.1.

What’s really missing, however, is Carl Davis’ splendid score, which was on the original Blu-ray. I consider this among the greatest of all recorded silent film scores. Its absence here is keenly felt.

And for Three Ages:

  • Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra: I love this sextet’s work, and this score didn’t disappoint me. Their use of Dance of the Hours is brilliant. Kino presents this soundtrack in uncompressed PCM, two-track stereo.
  • Music by Robert Israel: Fine, but not exceptional. Presented in lossless, two-track, Dolby

Extras: The General:

  • Audio commentary by Michael Schlesinger and Stan Taffel: Finally, we have a commentary track for the General, and it’s a good one. These two guys know a lot about Keaton, and are entertaining to boot.
  • Orson Welles Introduction: 12 minutes. From a PBS series called The Silent Years. It’s pleasantly interesting, with clips from earlier shorts. This was on the original Blu-ray release.
  • Gloria Swanson Introduction: two minutes. From an earlier series called Silents Please. Nowhere near as interesting as Welles’ talk. This, too, was on the original Blu-ray release.
  • Return of the General: 11 minutes. An amateurish documentary, with intertitles instead of narration, from 1962. It’s not about the movie, but about the restoration of the actual Civil War train The General.

Unfortunately, Kino left out a lot of extras from the original Blu-ray. I especially miss the discussion of the actual historical event, John Bengtson’s tour of filming locations, and the behind the scenes home movies.

Extras: Three Ages

  • Alka-Selzer commercial: One minute. Yep, this is an old, black-and-white commercial starring Buster Keaton. He did a lot of those back then.
  • Candid Camera segment: 6 minutes. Keaton sits at a lunch counter and makes a mess of everything. The people sitting next to him don’t know they’re being filmed. This clip offers more laughs than any six minutes of the movie, and would have offered more without Arthur Godfrey’s annoying commentary.
  • Man’s Genesis: 9 minutes. An excerpt from D.W. Griffith’s 1912 short about cavemen. This was on the original Sherlock Jr./Three Ages Blu-ray.

That original disc also included a John Bengtson tour of Three Ages locations, which is sorely missed here. Not so strongly missed is the option to separate Three Ages into three shorts.

The lack of previous extras, and the Davis score, bothers me. But this set contains one great film with the commentary that it finally deserves.