Silents are Golden: A Closer Look – The General (1926)
Often called one of the finest silent films of all time – some people even consider it the finest – Buster Keaton’s masterwork The General (1926) still feels wonderfully fresh nearly 100 years later. Handsomely photographed and proudly recreating its historical time period with careful detail, it’s an impressive showcase for Keaton’s filmmaking skills – and some of his finest stunts, too.
By the mid-1920s, most major comedians had proudly transitioned from making short comedies to features. Audience expectations for good comedies were high and they liked frameworks of dramatic stories rather than just slapstick. Keaton had already made several popular feature-length comedies including the period picture Our Hospitality (1923) and the big hit The Navigator (1924), and was keenly aware of the trends of the day.
Gagwriter Clyde Bruckman likely knew this when he brought him the Civil War memoir The Great Locomotive Chase by William Pittenger, recounting the Andrews Raid where Union soldiers stole a train and attempted to cut off the Confederates’ supply lines. Keaton was instantly fascinated by the gripping story (the original title was Daring and Suffering: a History of the Great Railway Adventure), and decided to turn it into his next comedy. At the time the old South was considered the “noble loser” (many Civil War veterans and their families were still alive as well), so he made his main character the Southern engineer who loses The General, dubbing him Johnnie Gray.
Excited about recreating the Civil War period on-screen – he wanted it to look “so authentic it hurts” – Keaton hoped to film around the border between Georgia and Tennessee where much of the original train chase took place. He even wanted to use the actual The General locomotive, then being displayed at the Union Depot in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Unfortunately, the border area was too developed to pass for the rural 1860s, and the Tennessee government balked at loaning out The General. But he did find an ideal location around the sleepy town of Cottage Grove, Oregon, which was full of forested hills and plenty of train tracks. In May 1926 Keaton moved his company and 18 boxcars of costumes, filmmaking equipment, recreations of Civil War weapons, remodeled train engines, etc. to Cottage Grove, and work on his ambitious film began.
For everyone involved, it was an exciting, memorable summer – full of hard work but plenty of fun too. The citizens of Cottage Grove were ecstatic over being the “Hollywood of Oregon” and the local newspaper breathlessly covered every detail of the filming. Folks from nearby towns flocked in to watch the famous comedian at work. At the end of a day’s filming Keaton and his crew would sometimes host a dance or put on a show for the locals. He also squeezed in fishing and baseball whenever he could, even fixing up Cottage Grove’s local ballpark free of charge. The town could hardly have asked for a more agreeable crew of “movie people.”
To play the Civil War soldiers, Keaton recruited 500 of Oregon’s National Guardsmen, clad in period-accurate uniforms. His father, Joe Keaton, was also recruited for a small role as a Union general, and brunette Marion Mack was chosen to play his slightly bird-brained leading lady. Locals often saw Marion biking around town while not on set, and Keaton got a kick out of playing pranks on her. He concocted the scene with the water spout, for instance, without telling her that the spout was going to gush water all over her. Her surprised reaction is in the film today.
Filming wasn’t always easy, especially when the summer heat sometimes broke 100 degrees. Keaton’s stunts were frequently dangerous, especially since many involved running and climbing around on moving trains. The charming gag where Johnny sits on a train’s piston and it slowly moves him up and down could have killed him if too much steam had caused the engine to spin its wheels. During the battle scenes, two soldiers almost drowned in the rapids, and Keaton was knocked unconscious by a cannon blast. A forest fire even started at one point, allegedly by sparks from the wheels of the 1860s-styled trains, and Keaton and his crew personally helped beat back the flames with their shirts and pants.
The crown jewel of the shoot was the single most expensive stunt in silent film history, a train crashing from a dynamited bridge into a river. That July day thousands of people flocked to watch the stunt, some shuttled in by morning trains. A special trestle had been built, loaded with strategically-placed explosives. At three in the afternoon, the signal was given and six cameras cranked side-by-side as the train began crossing the trestle. When it reached the middle the dynamite went off and the train plunged smoothly into the water. The paper reported that Keaton was “as happy as a kid” over how well the stunt turned out.
Today, it’s often mentioned that The General was negatively reviewed, and thanks to its expensive shoot it’s considered a flop as well. There’s likely room for more research here, especially since many of the negative reviews seem to have come from the New York newspapers (or so this writer has heard), and the box office numbers cited didn’t always include foreign markets. But Buster himself said: “…It held an audience. They were interested in it – from start to finish – and there was enough laughter to satisfy.” Marion Mack would also insist, “It was the audiences that made it such a hit, the studio never realized what a gem they had on their hands until the money started rolling in.” At any rate, as far as they were concerned The General had been a success.
If it was indeed overlooked in the 1920s, The General has since stood the test of time. It’s also survived in extraordinarily beautiful condition, as clear and crisp as it was a century ago. When we take in its timeless humor and breathtaking stunts today, it’s not hard to see why Keaton once said: “I was more proud of that picture, I suppose, than any other picture I ever made, because I took an actual happening out of the Civil War, out of the history book. And I told it in detail, too.”
–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub
Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.