A few words about…™ The General & Steamboat Bill, Jr. (Cohen) — in Blu-ray

The General: Upgrade from previous Blu-ray - Yes; Steamboat Bill, Jr.: Upgrade from DVD - Absolutely not. 4 Stars

When it comes to film restoration and preservation, nothing beats an original negative, or properly produced fine grain, that can be massage back to life.

This is just as important when it comes to Public Domain productions, that have been around the world and back in film and home video releases that run the gamut from horrid to beautiful.

With the assets of the Rohauer library at their disposal, The Cohen Collection has the ability to offer quality that can make public domain versions far less desirable.

At any price.

The Buster Keaton Collection Volume 1 should have been perfect.

Beautiful original 35mm elements, restored and synchronized with the work of Carl Davis.

And yet…

While The General, a film that many cinephiles consider a perfect comedy, and the quintessential Keaton, looks superb, and akin to viewing a new print derived from the camera original, Steamboat Bill goes in an odd direction.

The scan looks proper. Stabilization – check. Clean-up – check.

Timing, which is inclusive of overall exposure, black levels, shadow detail, and other niceties – here’s the rub.

While The General looks superb, there are PD versions of Steamboat that appear better when it comes to overall exposure.

If I were viewing a print, I’d surmise that either exposure was occasionally off by 3-4 points, as in not enough illumination going through the negative, and hitting the raw stock, or problematic processing, totally missing the range of grays and blacks that can be seen on a proper print.

I have no idea what the problem is, but Steamboat somehow made it through any number of QC processes with parts appearing weak and underexposed. Basically, in some situations, whites appear blown out, and grays akin to dishwater. And that’s a pity, as I know that a great deal of effort went into creating these new masters.

Normally, to be able to own these two films in superb condition would easily be worth the $23 price of admission, but in this case, one sings. The other doesn’t, and I’d pass. Especially since anyone who loves Keaton already owns the earlier Kino releases, which work beautifully.

For clarity, I’m certain that some viewers will find both of these films to look perfectly beautiful, with Steamboat Bill, eliciting a delicate range of grays and whites. I’m not among them, especially knowing what a silver nitrate print might look like.

Some viewers might find it instructive to find a nice fade out / fade, and run the film frame by frame as the image darkens. While this is far from perfect, it will give some indication of what the film might look like with a simple overall exposure change.

The General

Image – 5

Audio – n/a

Pass / Fail – Pass

Upgrade from previous Blu-ray – Yes

Highly Recommended

Steamboat Bill, Jr.

Image – 3

Audio – n/a

Pass / Fail – Fail

Upgrade from DVD – Absolutely not.

Not Recommended

RAH

Published by

Robert Harris

editor,member

30 Comments

  1. That's a shame about STEAMBOAT BILL. Back in the day, I had a superb 16mm print from Blackhawk Films; it was perhaps their highest quality release, and one of the best 16mm silent prints I've ever seen.

  2. Thanks for the review. I thought Steamboat Bill Jr on the Eureka set looked superb, but after reading your review, I can see what you are pointing out. It's also evident on the trailer, but not in every scene.

  3. titch

    Thanks for the review. I thought Steamboat Bill Jr on the Eureka set looked superb, but after reading your review, I can see what you are pointing out. It's also evident on the trailer, but not in every scene.

    Years ago, in a discussion with Kevin Brownlow about a recently struck black & white print, he averred that "if certain shots just had another half point of density…"

    And I agreed.

    Steamboat is off by far more than half a point.

  4. A shame. All that work.
    One film gathers more steam;
    while the other just misses the boat.
    Now that's a kick in the caboose;
    and a product lacking ballast to boot.
    No sale for me.:(

  5. PMF

    A shame. All that work.
    One film gathers more steam;
    while the other just misses the boat.
    Now that's a kick in the caboose;
    and a product lacking ballast to boot.
    No sale for me.:(

    Ah – but The General is flawless at least! And at the same price that the former Kino version retailed for (now out-of-print and selling for ludicrous amounts on Amazon)!

  6. titch

    Ah – but The General is flawless at least! And at the same price that the former Kino version retailed for (now out-of-print and selling for ludicrous amounts on Amazon)!

    I've already got the Kino, so another 22 bucks for a Dead-In-The-Water transfer of Steamboat does not entice.
    The true incentive would've been if both films were a match in excellence;
    thus making the upgrade of "The General" a far more palatable bonus.

  7. Robert Harris

    Regardless of the final results, Cohen invested serious dollars for these restorations.

    "Just when I thought I was out…they pull me back in."
    Godfather Part III

    Well, Mr. Harris, you've gone and done it. You've said my passion word. Restoration. Except in this case, you said "restorations"; as in the plural. Darn it all, you know I'm an old softy when it gets to that conversation. Okay, Cohen Collection, I concede. I'll purchase it – although not until July – if for only one reason alone; to support all acts and actions towards film archiving, preservation, restoration and the pursuit of keeping physical media healthy and strong.:thumbs-up-smiley:

  8. I did my own quick a/b comparison with the 2009 Kino Blu-ray release of The General. The Cohen release does not have the slight sepia toning and looks cleaner than the Kino release. I will keep both versions anyway since theses two are my favorite Keaton films.

  9. Robert Harris

    When it comes to film restoration and preservation, nothing beats an original negative, or properly produced fine grain, that can be massage back to life.

    This is just as important when it comes to Public Domain productions, that have been around the world and back in film and home video releases that run the gamut from horrid to beautiful.

    With the assets of the Rohauer library at their disposal, The Cohen Collection has the ability to offer quality that can make public domain versions far less desirable.

    At any price.

    The Buster Keaton Collection Volume 1 should have been perfect.

    Beautiful original 35mm elements, restored and synchronized with the work of Carl Davis.

    And yet…

    While The General, a film that many cinephiles consider a perfect comedy, and the quintessential Keaton, looks superb, and akin to viewing a new print derived from the camera original, Steamboat Bill goes in an odd direction.

    The scan looks proper. Stabilization – check. Clean-up – check.

    Timing, which is inclusive of overall exposure, black levels, shadow detail, and other niceties – here's the rub.

    While The General looks superb, there are PD versions of Steamboat that appear better when it comes to overall exposure.

    If I were viewing a print, I'd surmise that either exposure was occasionally off by 3-4 points, as in not enough illumination going through the negative, and hitting the raw stock, or problematic processing, totally missing the range of grays and blacks that can be seen on a proper print.

    I have no idea what the problem is, but Steamboat somehow made it through any number of QC processes with parts appearing weak and underexposed. Basically, in some situations, whites appear blown out, and grays akin to dishwater. And that's a pity, as I know that a great deal of effort went into creating these new masters.

    Normally, to be able to own these two films in superb condition would easily be worth the $23 price of admission, but in this case, one sings. The other doesn't, and I'd pass. Especially since anyone who loves Keaton already owns the earlier Kino releases, which work beautifully.

    For clarity, I'm certain that some viewers will find both of these films to look perfectly beautiful, with Steamboat Bill, eliciting a delicate range of grays and whites. I'm not among them, especially knowing what a silver nitrate print might look like.

    Some viewers might find it instructive to find a nice fade out / fade, and run the film frame by frame as the image darkens. While this is far from perfect, it will give some indication of what the film might look like with a simple overall exposure change.

    The General

    Image – 5

    Audio – n/a

    Pass / Fail – Pass

    Upgrade from previous Blu-ray – Yes

    Highly Recommended

    Steamboat Bill, Jr.

    Image – 3

    Audio – n/a

    Pass / Fail – Fail

    Upgrade from DVD – Absolutely not.

    Not Recommended

    RAH

    There is a real chasm between the superb 4k DCP projection of Steamboat Bill which I saw at Bologna in 2017 and the current BluRay in the MoC region B box and now obviously also the Region A Kino. Again, the encode of The General scores full
    marks for density, black levels, detail etc. Sherlock Jnr which is also on the MoC box also does better then Steamboat Bill for tonal quality but not quite for sharpness. The 4k for Sherlock though was derived from a 35safety pos. It would be interesting to know how and by whom the masters for the Blu of Steamboat were prepared. Looking at the booklet credits in the MoC box there appears to be no mastering or additional work done on mastering by, for instance David Mackenzie, so one has to assume Cohen and MoC have both used masters supplied by Ritrovata??

  10. Robert Harris

    I have no idea what the problem is, but Steamboat somehow made it through any number of QC processes with parts appearing weak and underexposed.[…]And that's a pity, as I know that a great deal of effort went into creating these new masters. […]Not Recommended.

    My knee-jerk reaction from yesterday's review was simple. Clearly, the new master of "The General" had such plaudits attached to it that I had been left with the impression that "Steamboat Bill, Jr." was just thrown into the offering as an afterthought of little regard or work. Yet, latter in the day, RAH clarified with an additional post, as follows:

    Robert Harris

    Regardless of the final results, Cohen invested serious dollars for these restorations.

    "…these restorations"? That's a plural, right there. And so it was that I went back and carefully re-read the review to see where I had missed that point. Eventually, my eye had caught that important distinction which matters much to me, as found in the following passage:

    Robert Harris

    […]as I know that a great deal of effort went into creating these new masters.

    Okay, then, that's more than good enough for me. Both "The General" and "Steamboat Bill, Jr." were, together, given their due efforts. Both the monies invested and the work applied by The Cohen Collection has led to my reversal of yesterday and won my support. My concerns are no longer. After all, these are very old films and not everything being offered of these vintages could ever be expected to look like Twilight Time's "The Birth of a Nation", Criterion's "The Kid" or, in this case, Cohen's "The General". The effort is all; so my thanks to RAH for navigating me back on course and in the direction of "Steamboat Bill, Jr.".

  11. Cohen are working on new 4Ks of all the features (excluding the two 1929 MGMones) with Ritrovata and Film Foundation as partners. I will just say again, I have seen SteamboatBill and Sherlockin 4K DCPs at Bologna and they are both mind blowing in projection. Somehting has happened between the DCPs andthe HD master prepared for Blu Ray of Stemaboat Bill. Sherlock on the MOC box has much better density but is less than ideally sharp and it is cursed with a very low BDMV size and bitrate. An absurdly low bitrate in fact.

  12. PMF

    "…these restorations"? That's a plural, right there. And so it was that I went back and carefully re-read the review to see where I had missed that point. Eventually, my eye had caught that important distinction which matters much to me, as found in the following passage:
    .

    Think the "these" were were Inclusive of all Cohens and multiple Keaton's — not just the two in this set.

  13. There are two Kino versions. The first one was washed out. I think that was from Blackhawk. Reviewers said the second one was a bit better, but softer as I remember. That one was from Lobster Films. Maybe this film just doesn't exist perfect like the rest. The General by Cohen is head and shoulders above the rest.

  14. bigshot

    There are two Kino versions. The first one was washed out. I think that was from Blackhawk. Reviewers said the second one was a bit better, but softer as I remember. That one was from Lobster Films. Maybe this film just doesn't exist perfect like the rest. The General by Cohen is head and shoulders above the rest.

    The original Kino transfer is from 2007, I think, and was created for their remastered DVD. It's a much better source than Lobster's 2K remaster (perhaps a fine-grain positive compared to Lobster's likely dupe neg), but Lobster's transfer is better. As expected, as the two transfers were created a decade apart. Though, Cohen's 4K should completely overshadow between using the prime source(s) and being 4K projects.

  15. The problem isn't the resolution or age of the transfers. It's the film element. The first Kino release was washed out. The storm scenes were quite thin and blew out in the highlights. Now I hear the Cohen does that too. I was wondering if the print Lobster used has better gray tones. Have you seen all three? If so could you compare the contrast grading of the three for me please?

  16. Thomas T

    Eureka (Masters of Cinema series) has announced an August 12, 2019 release date of a blu ray set consisting of The General, Sherlock Jr. and Steamboat Bill Jr. from 4K restorations. Hopefully the problems with the Steamboat Bill Jr. transfer will be remedied. https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product…0be3a6f4084234a152aa1e8b50c49b&language=en_GB

    No – this is just a reissue of the set that was originally issued in 2018, but without the booklet.

  17. I compared the Kino 2017 Steamboat Bill, Jr. to the Cohen on my projection system. The density/grading situation is similar, but the Cohen film element is superior to my eyes. One generation earlier looks to me.

  18. I agree. What is puzzling on the Cohen Steamboat Bill is the blown out white levels. If you do some tweaking on the display you can regain some f the image quality that I remember well from the 4k screening.

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