The General, Buster Keaton's Civil War comedy-drama, is regarded by most film critics and movie buffs as one of the greatest movies ever made. It has deadpan humor, engrossing drama, eye-popping spectacle, and cinematography that has been compared to Mathew Brady's famed Civil War photos. All of this was accomplished well before movie special effects and CGI had been perfected -- so everything that happens on the screen...well, one way or the other, it actually happened.
The General celebrated its 85th anniversary in 2011. Did it get any special tribute from Hollywood? Well, some good-hearted critics wrote a few special columns about it. Other than that, the date sank without a trace.
Oh, wait a minute. There was one ambitious homage to The General that definitely deserves its due. We discovered that one enterprising party issued a special edition of the movie on DVD...
That's right. 3-Dimension -- the movie gimmick that's been rearing its ugly head for 60 years -- was applied to a movie made in black-and-white, in the pre-sound era, that was clearly meant to evoke nothing other than a simpler era of photography. So evidently, some cynical huckster put his mind to it and decided that the only way Buster Keaton could be made "relevant" in this day and age, was to turn his movie masterpiece into Transformers.
Apparently, this effort wasn't as successful as Mr. Huckster would have liked. There's little reference to "The General in 3D" on the Internet. We wouldn't have known about it, if we hadn't come across it one day while casually "web-surfing" at Amazon.com.
But at least one person of note has seen fit to view the movie and make people aware of it. Ironically, that person is David Shepard. Some of you might not recognize that name, but he's highly respected among film preservationists. In 1987, Shepard bought the library of Blackhawk Films, an American film dealer revered among film collectors from the 1940's until the company went defunct in the mid-'80s. Shepard has spent decades restoring battered old prints to their former glory, including many of the Buster Keaton silents in Kino Video's lavish Keaton DVD set.
Shepard has posted a review of the 3D General at Amazon.com, and his review is generous to the point of a Presidential pardon. If you read between the lines, you can tell that overall, Shepard is less than thrilled with this bastardization of Keaton's masterwork. But he tries his best to look on the bright side. Here are some passages from Shepard's review.
* "I'm no connoisseur of 2D to 3D conversions but for the most part this is as good as any I have seen. The only glaring problem is with the title cards, which, of course, have nothing 3D about them and seem to my eyes to be blurry rather than sharp, and with some color fringing."
* "As is well known, the film is a masterpiece. In my opinion, the 3D conversion doesn't do it any harm, but it does not improve a beautiful work which was just great as made by Buster Keaton. It would be worthwhile if it could persuade someone who otherwise would never look at The General to experience the film here."
(That's much the same weak argument that apologists gave for movie colorization. If you have to "gimmick up" great movies in order to persuade zombie-heads to watch them, aren't you better off just leaving the movies to people who appreciate the films in their original form?)
But Shepard saves his most lenient point until review's end. (The italics in the following paragraph were added by this website, not by Shepard.)
"The image quality and musical score (uncredited here, but by Robert Israel) are very nice, as they should be, for they have been stolen from the Kino 'ultimate edition' DVD [of The General]. Although the film [itself] is in public domain, pirating another publisher's product [the musical score], especially one in which a great deal was invested, is at least unethical. The music score is copyrighted and as I produced it, I can attest that its use on this product is unlicensed."
(In terms of movie copyright, and of someone else stealing one's own work, the preceding paragraph is but a slap on the wrist. If I were the guy who'd produced and released this "bootleg" of the copyrighted General, I'd be getting signed up for a witness-protection program at this very moment.)
The final, most ironic insult to injury -- one which Shepard also noted in his review -- is that, while this is being trumpeted as a 3D production, the seller doesn't even provide any buyers with a pair of 3D glasses to go with the DVD!
So let's review. A huckster decides he'll take a silent movie and make it "his own" by adding 3D to it. Mr. Huckster doesn't even bother to choose from the hundreds of public-domain versions of this movie; instead, he picks the one version that was copyrighted. Mr. H. is too cheap to send Mr. Naive Consumer any 3D glasses to go with his lavish 3D production. And finally, Mr. H. is so embarrassed by his own product, he doesn't even make any noise about the product on the occasion of its 85th birthday...yet he's not so ashamed of it that he won't try to scratch a few bucks out of it on Amazon.com.
Well, Mr. Huckster, David Shepard is a lot kinder than we are. Here's the public notoriety you've subconsciously sought for your cynical, truncated version of a movie classic. Enjoy!!