I'm not aware of anyone who doesn't love Buster Keaton, including me; Roger Ebert called him the greatest actor-director in the history of movies, and to that you can add one of the best stuntmen, gag men, and general talents ever to grace the silent screen. Home video of his work has been spotty over the years, though, with Kino Classics attempting to pull together the best editions of Keaton's masterpieces, a task that now falls into the capable hands of Cohen Media Group. The result is a simply stunning upgrade of two of the great classics not just of Buster's, but of all movie history.
Buster's a Southerner who's refused entry into the Confederate Army, 1861, because he's too valuable as a railroad engineer - although the induction officer neglects to tell him that, making it look to everyone in town that Buster's a coward, which loses him his girl, lovely Marion Mack. A year later, his beloved engine, The General, is stolen by Union spies, with Marion aboard. Buster cops another train and chases The General North while the Yankees destroy everything on their trail (they're certain the entire Reb Army is behind them, you see). Buster manages to nab The General and The Girl and head back South, this time with the Union soldiers in hot pursuit.
Buster's acknowledged masterpiece, but considered a big-budget fiasco at the time without many laughs. To this day, I know people who prefer "the funny Keaton films" to this one, while admitting they admire The General. Surprisingly, critics at the time were unimpressed (sourpuss Mordaunt Hall at the N.Y. Times: "This is by no means so good as Mr. Keaton's previous efforts. Here he is more the acrobat than the clown, and his vehicle might be described as a mixture of cast iron and jelly.") but me? I could watch it every week, although I do acknowledge the laughs come from his character and some gags, and this isn't the fount of hilarity that some of Keaton's other features are. Producer Joe Schenck had just moved over to United Artists, and approved a colossal budget for this thing (the single, solitary staging of the wreck of the train off the fiery bridge reportedly cost nearly $50,000 to stage, and that was just one shot in the film) based on the big success of Buster's previous film, Battling Butler. The General is quintessential Keaton, but has never been my first choice to show someone who hasn't seen any of Buster's films. Many of the biggest laughs simply come from the looks people give, from Buster trying to figure out where the other train keeps going to the look on the Union General's face when the bridge collapses; the film shows every dollar of its bloated budget up on the screen. A great, great, great movie, and it made about half the money of Battling Butler, for cryin' out loud.
Steamboat Bill, Jr.
Grizzly old Steamboat Bill is so pleased that his son's returning from school in the East; no doubt the kid's a big hulking mook like his dad, right? Um, well, actually, he's a puny French-looking sissy boy who acts like Tinkerbell. Bill is going to try and stomp that out of him, first by cutting off that ridiculous moutache, then by finding just the right hat for him, then by teaching him to put on man's pants and be a sailor. That means competing with the neighboring rich guy's new cosmic-powered ferryboat, and the rich guy's daughter and Buster are in love, so there's THAT complication. And a hurricane's a-comin', too!
These days, this is my favorite Buster Keaton picture, filmed right here in Sacramento, although pretty much it's a fake "town" built on the river front so that it could be destroyed by the storm. It's a leisurely picture, roaming around in search of comedy, usually succeeding, and several of the laughs are huge. I love the sequence in which Buster tries on a dizzying array of hats, including his familiar porkpie, which he instantly whips off before his dad could see it. There's much of the typical Keaton stuntwork in view, too, including one of those "how did he do that?" sequences in which he falls down the side of a boat. Ernest Torrence is Steamboat Bill, Sr., and Marion Byron is The Girl. Anyone who hasn't seen the film may well find it rather weak until the final couple reels; the rest of us will sit through the first 50 minutes anytime to get to the last 20, the storm that tears apart the town building by building, plank by plank, and lifts and dunks Buster through a series of perils, notably a ride on a tree and, yes, his most famous stunt: a building that falls on him but has an open window placed just right, maybe the most dangerous stunt in movie history (stay on your mark, there, Mr. Keaton).
Following the box-office disappointments of The General and College, this thing was budgeted at a reasonable $200,000. The budget kept going up, though, and Buster wanted to end it with a bang: a flood that destroys the town. When REAL floods devastated part of the country that year, though, it was hastily changed to a hurricane, which is funnier than a flood anyway. In any case, the budget ended up doubling, and - uh-oh - the film was the third disappointment in a row for the Keaton team, in this case actually losing money; even the last two films had turned modest profits.
Things were already changing in Buster's world, of course. As soon as work wrapped on Steamboat Bill, Jr., Schrenck recommended that Buster dissolve his studio and sign with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. In what Buster later called the worst mistake he ever made, he signed the contract on January 26, 1928. Steamboat Bill hadn't been released yet; one wonders if the contract would be so lucrative if they'd known that it was going to be a flop (or perhaps one of the reasons it was a flop was that United Artists didn't care to heavily promote a film star who had left them for MGM). In any case, Buster made $150,000 per year for two years under the term of the contract. Buster was obligated to star in two films for each of those two years; he'd be paid an additional $50,000 for each film he made per year over that. Did Buster think twice about the clause that read that he would be "consulted" in regard to the story and direction of each film, but that "the decision of the producer shall be final"? His career would never recover.
The New Restoration
Both films feature new 4K restorations with wonderful orchestral scores by Carl Davis (5.1 HD masters). Bonus material is rather skimpy, so you'll probably want to hang on to your previous Kino Blu-rays if you have them (there are a couple of five min. featurettes and new trailers here, and that's it) but we did find both films better represented here (and with better scores) than on the previous releases.
Highest recommendation, and Cohen Media has already announced Vol. 2 (with the laugh riots Sherlock, Jr. and The Navigator) for July. They also have a Buster Keaton documentary, The Great Keaton, available now.