The General / Steamboat Bill, Jr.: Kino vs. Image, reactions?

Discussion in 'DVD' started by Bill Burns, Nov 6, 2003.

  1. Bill Burns

    Bill Burns Supporting Actor

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    Image Entertainment has recently released a disc offering both The General and Steamboat Bill, Jr. in one double feature presentation, as produced for home video by David Shepard. Here's a link at DVDEmpire:

    http://www.dvdempire.com/Exec/v4_ite...earchID=550875

    They don't list it in stock as of this writing, but other e-tailers, such as DVDPlanet, have it in. The above link offers both front and back cover scans (click on the image on their site for a larger front scan and the option of accessing the back cover as well).

    There are also Kino editions of both of these pictures on the DVD market, along with a number of other Keaton pictures (many of his short films and all of his feature length silent works, I believe), and in a couple of iterations: first are the two individual discs for The General ...

    http://www.dvdempire.com/Exec/v4_ite...earchID=550875 (listed as unavailable, but I believe it can still be purchased at some e-tailers and on Kino's home site)

    ... and Steamboat Bill, Jr. ...

    http://www.dvdempire.com/Exec/v4_ite...earchID=553124

    ... each of which offers two Keaton shorts as well, including his great classics The Playhouse and Cops on The General.

    The other way in which these discs may be had (in keepcases) is by way of the 11-disc Kino set The Art of Buster Keaton collection, which may be purchased, as may the individual discs (the individuals may still be in snapper cases, I'm unsure), through either e-tailers or Kino's website itself. Here's a link to the set at DVDEmpire:

    http://www.dvdempire.com/exec/v4_ite...&item_id=41697

    The new Image disc (which offers both The General and Steamboat Bill, Jr., sans shorts, on one disc) comes our way with new Alloy Orchestra scores for both features, while the Kino discs have scores by Gaylord Carter (Steamboat Bill, Jr. and Cops) and Robert Israel (The General and the remaining three shorts).

    Advanced news suggested that at least The General was to be taken from a superior element for the Image disc (I believe Jack Theakston made mention of that here a while ago), but I've just rewatched my Kino copy, and it's one of the very best looking silents on disc. [​IMG] Aside from some decomp in one section, it looks absolutely fantastic. I'm wondering just how much improvement might be possible. I haven't recently revisited Kino's Steamboat Bill, Jr., but if this has also been improved, I'm eager to discover as much.

    There are a couple of on-line reviews up. The most telling I've found is here ...

    http://www.dvdjournal.com/reviews/b/...keatondf.shtml

    ... where the writer, who has reportedly been in touch with David Shepard, discusses purported improvements in this new edition ... but without, in fact, referencing the existence of the Kino discs (update: oops, my mistake here -- skimming is a hard habit to break [​IMG]; see further posts below for detail, but he does, in fact, briefly mention improvements to the Kinos in the video portion of his review; sorry for the error), and without mentioning the older scores and the absence of the shorts. So I have to wonder if he's seen the Kinos (he has; again, see below)* -- I have no doubt that the new Image release looks terrific, but I'd love to know specifically how it compares with the Kinos, which also, by all fair evaluation (particularly of The General), look terrific.

    The mention made in that review of "advances in telecine" is something of a non-starter; with the proper care, 1991 telecine could turn out outstanding product, as we've recently seen with A/Bs of the new MK2 Chaplin discs (also touted in advance by industry resources/reviewers as "benefiting from advances in telecine") and the existing Image discs -- yes, improvements in contrast and fine detail can be seen, but some appear too dark, obscuring fine detail, and for all their digital cleaning, removing damage and deterioration, a few (myself included) have found the look of the older Images perfectly satisfying by comparison, PAL-NTSC issues aside. A few are mightily improved in the new MK2 batch (based on the preview clips I've seen on disc two of their The Gold Rush release), others improved at the expense of a few sacrifices, and at least one, City Lights, seriously degraded.

    So, as I said: "new telecine" doesn't necessarily mean anything. All things being equal, improvements in telecine will equal an improved product, but is everything equal, and if it is ... just how improved? How does the Alloy Orchestra stack up to Gaylord Carter and Robert Israel? And given the undeniable beauty of Kino's The General, is a new element truly in evidence (is that brief scene of decomp fixed, for instance), and, if so, just how much visual gain does it and the new telecine offer? A mild improvement, a significant one ... minor improvements in detail, major improvements in detail, slight improvements in contrast, significant improvements in contrast (this seems impossible, given the quality of the old edition) ... that sort of determination is the one I'd like to make. I'm fairly meticulous in video appraisal, so even a small improvement is likely to impress me, but I'd like to get to the bottom of just what sort of improvement I might expect here, whether it's at the expense of anything else (aside from the change in scores and the absence of the shorts), and whether the improvements are to be found in both features, or in only one. Of course, if any of the visual parameters have taken a step backward, as with, arguably, one or two discs in the MK2 Chaplins, it would be important to address that as well.

    I have the utmost (let me emphasize, the utmost) respect for David Shepard, and look forward to any product that bears his name. However, both the older Kinos and this new Image were produced by Mr. Shepard, and of course he's in a business (a noble one, but a business nevertheless) and must try to make a new release profitable, so emphasizing such things as a "new telecine" are in his best interest. I'd love to hear from some who have actually compared the discs, though, and can qualify just what sort of improvements they detect (fine detail, contrast, highlights, etc.). If the new scores are markedly superior or inferior to the older scores, I'd love to hear reactions of that sort as well.

    Ultimately, I won't be parting with the Kinos, because the shorts are too important, but if noteworthy improvements in visual and/or sonic (but in particular visual) presentation have been achieved with the new Image disc, a double dip would be in order.

    Many thanks for thoughts and reactions. [​IMG]

    * That review is quite long, and I've only read the video/audio portion in detail (update: I still missed the Kino mention, as per above, but it's there; sorry once again), but in perusing the rest I see that the writer states Keaton and Chaplin never worked together. This isn't quite true. Silent historians may know of other occasions (I don't know if there were any others myself), but on display for all the world is Keaton's small but very memorable cameo in Chaplin's Limelight. [​IMG] Also, can anyone confirm that The General is "based on a true story," as the reviewer claims? Sets were modeled on period Civil War photographs, as were costumes, all to significant expense, but this is the first I've heard that the scenario (or any of its many events/gags, apart from the mention of a real battle or two) was taken from some forgotten corner of the history of that war. I ... have my doubts. [​IMG] But as a lover of history, I'd welcome correction.
     
  2. Claes Ljunghorn

    Claes Ljunghorn Stunt Coordinator

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    I have not seen the new Image version of "The General", but i'm sure it's possible for it to look better than the Kino dvd. Photoplay Productions version looks much sharper even on vhs (and it's not because of edge enhancement)and that version was made ca 5 years earlier, presumably from better film elements.

    Photoplay Productions documentary on Buster Keaton, in 3 parts, mentions the fact that "The General" is based on a true story. Keaton talks about it himself, in old intervju footage, if I remember correctly.
     
  3. Greg_S_H

    Greg_S_H Executive Producer

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    It is, and an issue of Civil War magazine featured the story a few years ago. I could look through my collection to find the exact issue if you are interested in tracking down the back issue. Otherwise, I'm sure you could find all you wanted to know on the internet. Here is one link I just found:

    http://www.laketownandshire.net/prot...ain%20Race.htm

    If the new disc doesn't have the other shorts, that's reason enough to keep the Kinos. If the image quality is noticeably superior, though, Keaton is worth the double-dip for sure. These two movies are actually two of the few I still haven't purchased on DVD, I'm sorry to say. I hope I can track down the single discs.
     
  4. MarkBourne

    MarkBourne Stunt Coordinator

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  5. MarkBourne

    MarkBourne Stunt Coordinator

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    The book, by the way, is available in various editions through Amazon.com. Go there, search for "William Pittenger," and the site serves up the book under different titles:

    Daring and Suffering: A History of the Andrews Railroad Raid

    Daring and Suffering: A History of the Great Railroad Adventure

    Capturing a Locomotive: A History of Secret Service in the Late War

    The History of the Andrews Railroad Raid in Georgia in 1862

    All different from the title referenced at the beginning of THE GENERAL, but the same book nonetheless.
     
  6. Bill Burns

    Bill Burns Supporting Actor

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    You sound peeved, Mark (item "b," and throughout). Don't take things so personally -- I'm trying to get to the bottom of what advances this edition offers over the old, not your veracity as a reviewer! If it sounds as though I was questioning that, I wasn't. You invite some clarification here, though: your statement that they "never worked together," though earlier qualified as "in their heyday," could mislead a reader into thinking there's nothing out there that unites the comics; I wanted to direct them otherwise. And one mentions the old scores (Gaylord Carter is very highly thought of in silent film circles -- though I don't believe you have sufficient info on my thoughts on the Alloy Orchestra to predict my reaction to their work) and the shorts to tell potential customers of the new disc what they're gaining and what they're missing, of course -- just as a review of, say, Terminator 2: Extended Edition mentions the old Ultimate Edition, and what you gain, and what you lose, in "upgrading." But that's self-evident; enough on such things. If I didn't couch those corrections/clarifications in sufficient humility, I'm sorry -- I didn't realize that was necessary, and I'm a very humble guy, so I often assume such things come across all on their own. I don't care in the least whether I'm actually correcting you or simply illustrating my own ignorance -- I only care about getting to the truth. But neither of us seem concerned with couching our posts in humble tones, so I won't let it worry me further. [​IMG]

    You're right -- you do mention improvements to the old Kinos. Once. I overlooked that in posting, my apologies. But the old Kino of The General is a very clean and detailed print, and in saying this new edition offers "greater cleanliness, clarity, definition ...." among other attributes (so far as I can tell, you seem to be saying there are gains across the board, no question about it), your review left me skeptical that an A/B comparison (rather than one from memory, or one simply taking Mr. Shepard's word for it -- and a comparison to the older DVDs, specifically, rather than earlier Kino laserdisc/VHS sources) had been made, and so I was hoping others might have done so and could either confirm or deny the same. A "remarkable" improvement to what is already one of the best looking silent DVDs on the market would be quite a feat. As good as the old Kino of The General looks, surely you can appreciate a desire for a second opinion, though if you've A'Bd the releases, my apologies for any lingering skepticism. It's nothing personal, Mark. How could it be? I don't know you. It's all right to question an on-line review found on a DVD review site, isn't it? Or did I miss something in internet etiquette 101?

    What is a non-starter, you ask? A "non-starter" is something that doesn't get us moving in the right direction of itself. Compare the MK2 City Lights to David Shepard's Image City Lights and you'll have a perfect example of a "new telecine" non-starter. Search here for a big thread about the MK2s and you'll see just why Mr. Shepard's "new telecine" praise doesn't create a perfectly smooth road to confident repurchase in and of itself (you're quite right, it was he who offered that praise for the MK2s, which makes the question all the more worthwhile, though I didn't see a need to point that out). DVDBeaver also offers a number of telling comparisons between the native PAL MK2s and their Image forerunners. The results are not what one would necessarily expect.

    Thanks for the info on the source book. I was unfamiliar with it, but I of course made no claims to being a silent historian, which is why I asked. Very little about the Civil War strikes me, off-hand, as comical, and that is why I had my doubts (my last name isn't Abbott or Hardy; I'm not feeding anyone any lines, straight or crooked). If the scenario of a train chase to save a girl ending in a major victory for one side is historically authentic (altered to the south, rather than the north), I'm happy to now know so. (the details appear to be otherwise, in fact -- see below for an update on the history behind the raid, now that I've had a chance to read through Greg's link)

    Now that we know, in detail, just how you feel about this disc and those old Kinos (just keep 'em for the shorts), I'd be very interested in additional opinions, should any be forthcoming, whether they agree or disagree with yours. Thanks to all, and to Claes and Greg* for their input. [​IMG] Much apppreciated.

    * Greg: from this link, found in the body of the text from your link above ...

    http://ngeorgia.com/history/raiders.html

    ... the story is told in detail. It doesn't sound as though Keaton changed much -- he added the girl, and a few comic details (particularly the big finish -- according to the article, the General in fact "gave out"), but it was, indeed, a Union raid into the Confederacy, as the film purports. Very interesting -- thanks again for pointing me to it.
     
  7. MarkBourne

    MarkBourne Stunt Coordinator

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    Oh, not peeved, Bill. Just a bit rolling-out-of-bed, pre-coffee testy while typing. Nothing personal taken or lobbed, promise. [​IMG]

    In short, the new Image release is a sure-fire addition to anyone's Kino collection, though not a replacement because we all still need Cops and The Playhouse (two of my favorites from all of silent cinema). I found the new General to be superior visually by a significant margin, and I love the Alloy Orchestra all around. Others will, no doubt, think differently.

    My purpose in writing the review was to wave the flag and sound the trumpets for Buster Keaton, aiming at new converts who might never otherwise consider bothering with a disc of "old stuff," as if I'm writing for, typically, Time magazine or Salon.com. As a writer first and a DVD gearhead second, I tend to leave the extra-granular comparisons and other eagle-eyed details to folks here at HTF, who have sharper eyeballs and better-honed technical sensibilities than I do.

    Besides, there's no such thing as too much Buster. [​IMG]
     
  8. Bill Burns

    Bill Burns Supporting Actor

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    Fair enough, Mark. I'd love to hear from some of those "eagle eyes" if they have a chance to chime in -- but you're absolutely right, good press for Buster is inherently a good thing.

    I enjoyed your review, if I failed to mention that. [​IMG]
     
  9. MarkBourne

    MarkBourne Stunt Coordinator

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    Thanks, Bill. Always good to get a [​IMG] from one of the hardcores.
     
  10. Bill Burns

    Bill Burns Supporting Actor

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  11. MarkBourne

    MarkBourne Stunt Coordinator

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    Well, %^$*#[email protected]^!, Bill. You're right. My memory is the one that's failing (although not entirely). That's what I get for not double-checking while typing here. :b I know I've seen that title credit in a print somewhere -- it imprinted itself in my memory a bit too much, it seems.

    However, the Kino box has this line in the credits on the back: "Adapted by Al Boasberg & Charles Smith from William Pittenger's THE GREAT LOCOMOTIVE CHASE." The Image box has it thusly: "Based Upon Capturing a Locomotive by William Pittenger."

    Two different title variants, but plainly there on both boxes.

    Still, I clearly conflated the box credit text with the film credit text.

    Thanks for the correction.
     
  12. Bill Burns

    Bill Burns Supporting Actor

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    No worries -- I haven't read the original box copy since I bought it more than a year ago (the credits are probably visible in the DVDEmpire scans available through links in my earlier post), but I was fairly sure that credit wasn't on the disc. Glad to know my bottle of Focus Factor hasn't gone bad. [​IMG]
     

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