Series Finale: The General (1927) by matthew c. hoffman

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NOTE: We had 90+ show up on our final night for The General, making it the largest turnout for the Legends of Laughter series. The following is the transcript of my talk…

This year is the 150th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War. Two thousand and eleven is also the 85th anniversary of one of the greatest films about the Civil War. It is a film universally regarded as Buster Keaton’s masterpiece, The General. We began Legends of Laughter with Chaplin’s comedy epic, so it is only fitting that we conclude the series with Keaton’s– the only other epic in the silent comedy tradition. It is a visually-beautiful film that features Buster Keaton’s greatest prop, a locomotive. Whether you are a history buff, or a train enthusiast, or, as most of you are, students of film, there is something in The General to be drawn to. It is an especially rewarding film to those of us who admire the work of Buster Keaton.

The genesis of this film came to him when his longtime gag writer, Clyde Bruckman, handed him a copy of William Pittenger’s book Daring and Suffering: a History of the Great Railroad Adventure. The story told of a real incident in 1862 in which a group of Union raiders, commanded by one James J. Andrews, hijacked a Southern locomotive. Their plan was to head north with it and destroy the railroad tracks and telegraph lines in their wake. The Union spies almost got away with it before being captured 19 miles short of their rendezvous. Some of the men were hanged. Those who survived were awarded the first ever Medal of Honor by Abraham Lincoln.

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From this historical adventure, Keaton and Bruckman fashioned a story symmetrical in structure, essentially comprised of two chases: Buster as engineer Johnnie Gray, chasing after his beloved General, and then in the second half, Buster being pursued by the Northerners. He told the story from the Southern point of view because as he said, “You can always make villains out of the Northerners, but you cannot make a villain out of the South.” The story blends dramatic action with gags, but The
General
is not a gag comedy as we’ve come to know a Keaton gag comedy. There’s something much more at work here, and that’s Keaton’s dramatic sense. Audiences and critics at the time, however, expected more laughs. But Buster was ahead of his time and transcended the comedy genre by creating something more than just a string of easy laughs and pratfalls.

Buster Keaton was enthusiastic about the project and was determined to make it as authentic as he could in terms of sets and set pieces. His eye for historical accuracy had been evident three years earlier with the making of Our Hospitality, another period comedy of his with a great sense of place. Buster was once asked why The General looked more authentic than Gone With the Wind. Keaton responded modestly, “Well, they went to a novel for their story. We went to history.”

As a result of this approach, the look and texture of the film has been compared to the photography of Matthew Brady. Brady, whose camera had captured the human devastation of the War Between the States, left a photographic legacy that became a strong visual influence on Buster’s film. Without the sad-looking, recognizable Stone Face present to remind us that it’s a Buster Keaton movie, individual, sepia-tinted images from The General could almost be mistaken for the real thing– like a history book come alive on the storyboard of Buster’s mind.

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Keaton tried to film in the actual South where the chase had taken place; however, he had to settle for a substitute in the Pacific Northwest. The Oregon Pacific and Eastern railway still operated on the narrow gauge variety of railway track that was needed to accommodate Buster’s re-constructed, 1860s locomotive. The location his crew found was Cottage Grove, Oregon, a timber and mining town that resembled Georgia, the scene of the chase.

The General ran over budget in no small part due to a forest fire which the wood-burning locomotive had started. Fortunately, Keaton had 500 members of the Oregon National Guard at his disposal. These men had been hired as extras and made up the armies of the North and South. With their help, Buster and his crew were able to put out the fire.

The General also contains the single most expensive shot ever taken in silent cinema. On July 23, 1926, Buster and his crew permanently retired a locomotive by having it crash through a bridge they had built. The shot cost $42,000. Spectators had gathered on the banks of the Row River to witness the filming. Author Lon Davis, in an article called “Saluting the General in Cottage Grove,” writes, “At three o’clock in the afternoon, Keaton gave the signal to the six cameramen to begin cranking. The unmanned engine made its way across the tracks. The timbers of the bridge had been partly sawed, and when a dynamite charge went off, the bridge snapped in half. The engine dropped with a huge splash of scalding steam into the river below. The train’s whistle was said to have emitted a long, mournful scream, signaling to the spectators that something catastrophic had occurred. A dummy had been left at the throttle to give the impression that a live engineer had perished in the crash. When the dummy’s severed head floated by in the adjoining stream, more than one woman in the crowd fainted.”

The wrecked locomotive remained a tourist attraction until World War II when it was finally salvaged for scrap metal.

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Twenty-three year old Marion Mack plays Annabelle Lee, Buster’s other great love in the movie. She’s most famous for this film. She did not appear in too many films afterward. Marion made a choice to work behind the camera. She became a Hollywood screenwriter and worked with her husband on various short subjects. Also in the cast, Keaton’s father, Joe, who has a small part as a Union general. There is one mystery figure in the cast. Though he’s uncredited– and the casting is unconfirmed– that could be horror icon Boris Karloff as the Union general who burns a hole in the tablecloth with his cigarette, indirectly leading Buster to rescue Annabelle.

The film has an epic sweep. Buster had directed large groups of people earlier in his 1922 two-reeler The Paleface, but now in The General, he has heightened the movement of those masses on a much grander scale. Buster was not alone in shaping this film. He shared directing credit with writer Clyde Bruckman, and it would be a mistake to minimize this contribution. Bruckman did work on the structure of the story as well as the gags and the dramatic scenes, leaving Keaton to concentrate on his performance and stunt work.

The final cost of The General was $750,000. The film only grossed about $474,000.  It was a train wreck at the box office, but I think that had more to do with the booking of the film. The General had been released through United Artists and not Metro, which had released his earlier silent film successes. Metro had the better distribution capabilities.

The original General locomotive was not actually used in the film. It has long since been retired, currently on display in Georgia. But tonight’s film will never be retired. It is fueled by the enthusiasm of those who run it on screens like this. Buster Keaton considered it his favorite of all his films. It was rediscovered in the 1950s during the Keaton Renaissance that eventually restored his name and reputation as a filmmaker. It has gone on to become an acknowledged classic– not just in the Keaton canon, but in the history of cinema. In 1989 it was selected as one of the first films to be preserved by the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. Also selected that year: Gone With the Wind and Citizen Kane.

Speaking of Citizen Kane, I thought for this final show, I would have someone else introduce the film…

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