The following is my contribution to The Sixth Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon, hosted by the lovely Lea at Silent-ology on March 9 and 10, 2020. Click on the banner below to read bloggers’ tributes to the life and career of silent-film comedian Buster Keaton!
(This blog entry is dedicated to Cynthia Morrison, a stuntwoman at the Burt Reynolds Institute whose work is inspired by and intended as a tribute to Buster Keaton. Click on her photo, below, to find out more about her work.)
The General, one of several Buster Keaton movies to make it to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry (this one in 1989), is truly Keaton’s movie epic. Keaton’s heroism and stunts in any of his movies are always amazing to watch, but often they are almost too outsized for the ordinary world in which they take place. For once, Keaton’s settings match his physicality.
The Making of the Movie
In September of 1925, one of Buster Keaton’s head gag writers, Clyde Bruckman, was doing some research on the Civil War when he came across Lt. William Pittenger’s 1863 book The Great Locomotive Chase. Bruckman read the book, a terrifying first-hand account of the now-famous (and failed) Union attempt to steal a Confederate railway engine and run it north, destroying cables, tracks, and bridges along the way.
Bruckman instantly thought the story would be perfect for Keaton, who was an avid history buff. Various sources list Bruckman as having brought the book to Keaton’s attention either during or shortly after the filming of Keaton’s feature Battling Butler (1926). In any case, once Bruckman gave him the book to read, Keaton read it straight through in one night. As Rudi Blesh recounted in his biography of Keaton: “Buster raced to the studio. ‘It’s a picture,’ he said to Clyde, ‘and I want you to help me direct it.'” Keaton would play a part (Johnnie Gray) based loosely on William A. Fuller, the conductor of the stolen train, who gave chase on foot and then on several hastily commissioned engines.
Keaton loved trains, and now, one of them would be his co-star. Keaton’s crew invented gags, and Keaton rejected them all, saying the film would not be a gag picture, but a straight story. “No shortcuts,” Keaton said. “It’s got to be so authentic it hurts.”
The movie is based on a true Civil War incident: the Andrews Raid, in which some Union soldiers hijacked a Southern locomotive named The General and attempted to drive it up north, destroying railroad tracks and cutting telegraph lines along the way. The raid failed when two Southern train conductors caught the raiders.
In Keaton’s movie of the story, Johnnie Gray is a Georgia train engineer who, when the Civil War reaches his home town of Marietta, is as willing to enlist as anyone. Unfortunately, the recruiter refuses to enlist Johnnie because he is of more use to the South as an engineer than as a soldier. Even more unfortunately, the recruiter doesn’t tell Johnnie why he was turned down, leading Johnnie’s girlfriend Annabelle (Marion Mack) and her family to believe that Johnnie is a coward. Annabelle tells Johnnie she never wants to speak to him again “until you’re wearing a uniform.” But when Johnnie’s train is hijacked by the Northerners, his heroism eventually gets the train back, defeats the Northern soldiers, and rescues Annabelle after the Northerners kidnap her. (Ironically, Annabelle gets her wish; when Johnnie rescues her, he is wearing a Northern soldier’s uniform, which he had to don in order to get behind enemy lines.)
Keaton was fascinated by trains, and now one of them would be his co-star. Keaton pulled out all the stops on this movie, and his quest for authenticity paid off. The movie’s plotting is wonderfully symmetrical, as Johnnie becomes a hero by pulling the same tricks on the Northern soldiers as they had previously pulled on him. And of course, Keaton spared no personal effort either, constantly jumping on, off, over, and on top of a moving train and making it look as effortless as riding a bike.
(Also, a word must be said about Keaton’s lead female, in this case Annabelle. Well-meaning film historians have stated that Annabelle is another “dutiful but dumb” Keaton heroine. True, she does do a couple of silly things in the movie, but so does Keaton. When Johnnie comes to rescue Annabelle from the Northern soldiers, he is constantly “ssh-ing” her so that the Northerners won’t hear them, only to end up making more noise than she does. One wonders if Stan Laurel didn’t crib this routine from The General, since he did it so often in Laurel & Hardy comedies.)
Buster Keaton wanted to use the real locomotive The General in the movie which was at the Louisville and Nashville Railroad Depot in Chattanooga, Tennessee (it’s in Kennesaw, Georgia now), but was unable to, and had to dress up another 4-4-0 locomotive instead.
Keaton performed many dangerous physical stunts on and around the moving train, including jumping from the engine to a tender to a boxcar, sitting on the cow-catcher of the slow moving train while holding a railroad tie, and running along the roof.
One of the most dangerous stunts occurred when Buster sat on one of the coupling rods, which connect the drivers of the locomotive. In the film, the train starts gently and gradually picks up speed as it enters a shed. It is nearly impossible for any engineer to start any train moving this precisely. If he had not accelerated by just the correct amount, the rods might have been moving so fast as to send Buster flying, possibly injuring or killing him. The story goes that it took considerable persuasion on his part to get the engineer to go through with it.
The first try at getting the cannonball to shoot out of the cannon into the cab caused the ball to shoot with too much force. To cause the cannonball to shoot into the cab of the engine correctly, Keaton had to count out the grains of gunpowder with tweezers.
In the scene where Johnnie and Annabelle refill the water reservoir of the train, Marion Mack said in an interview many years later that she had no idea that she was supposed to get drenched. Buster Keaton had not told her what was supposed to happen, so the shock you see is genuine.
In the scenes with the opposing armies marching, Keaton had the extras (which included 500 Oregon National Guardsmen) wear the uniforms of the Confederacy and march in one direction past the camera, then he had them change uniforms to the Union blue and had them march past the camera in the other direction.
The film’s hard-edged look was inspired by the battlefield photographs of Mathew Brady, which captured the carnage of the Civil War in shocking detail.
Many notables have cameos in this film. Keaton’s former director of photography, Elgin Lessley, has a cameo as the Union general who gives the command to cross the burning bridge. Joe Keaton, Buster’s father who played parts in several of his other movies, also plays a Union general. Producer Louis Lewyn (who was also Marion Mack’s husband) has a bit part as a soldier. In addition, an earlier version of the film featured some scenes with Snitz Edwards, who had previously served as a memorable “sidekick” for Buster in Seven Chances and Battling Butler. These scenes were eventually deleted.
Since United Artists was initially leery of offending viewers for whom the Civil War was still a fresh and wounding memory, The General opened first in two theaters in Tokyo, Japan, under the title Keaton, Shogun.
Buster Keaton said that The General was one of his three top financial successes. And Marion Mack said in an interview: “…we were surprised when it took off as it did. It was the audiences that made it such a hit; the studio never realized what a gem they had in their hands until the money started rolling in.” Yet, in the ledger books the film was a flop, with a domestic gross of only $474,264. No one has yet fully researched the discrepancy here, and no one has yet determined its actual earnings or loss, as opposed to its reported loss (there’s often or always a major difference between the two). Several theories have been advanced for this reported failure and its aftermath; here is mine.
Previous Keaton features had been released through Metro and its successor, M-G-M. Since Joe Schenck had just switched jobs, The General was the first of three films to be released through United Artists (a far less wealthy studio than M-G-M), and all three UA/Keaton releases have long been considered financial flops. When Keaton was forced to move to M-G-M, after his first couple of M-G-M features (which were fairly true to his “independent” form), he was placed in assembly-line pictures that, ironically, made far more money than his independent features had made. Could this have been due far less to the superiority of M-G-M’s product (as M-G-M would have had us believe at that time) and more to M-G-M’s superiority in booking clout over the fledgling United Artists? (In the Blesh biography, Keaton himself claimed that UA’s poor marketing process cost Steamboat Bill Jr., his final UA feature, $750,000.)
A 2002 world-wide poll by Sight and Sound ranked The General as the 15th best film of all time. Three other Keaton films received votes in the survey: Our Hospitality, Sherlock, Jr., and The Navigator.
In 1989, The General was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” It made it into the registry in the first year it was enacted, going in with such films as The Best Years of Our Lives, Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Gone with the Wind, and Sunset Boulevard.
In a 2002 poll of critics and filmmakers on the best films ever made, critic Roger Ebert listed it in his top ten. It is also on his list of “Great Movies.”
In 2000, the American Film Institute issued their list “100 Years…100 Laughs,” listing their vote-winners of the 100 funniest feature films of all time. The General ranked at # 18. In 2007, AFI issued a list of “Top 100 Greatest Movies.” Curiously, The General posted at # 18 on that list as well.
U.S. film distributors Kino International released the film on Blu-ray Disc in November 2009. This was the first American release of a silent feature film for the High Definition video medium.
Let’s Talk About The General
Comedy filmmaker Mel Brooks: “There’s a tiny moment in The General where he captures the bad guy in the engine, and he doesn’t do much with the gun. He doesn’t threaten or pose; he doesn’t overact. He just kind of flicks it like a feather duster twice, like, ‘C’mon, this is a gun. I can kill you.’ That’s enough. The guy knows…[Keaton] left a great legacy for all comedy filmmakers. He’s shown us how to do it.”
Lord of the Rings trilogy director Peter Jackson: “The General, from 1927, I think is still one of the great films of all time…[T]reat yourself to one of the most incredible filmmakers at the height of his power.”
Nazi propaganda filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, describing a chance meeting she had with Keaton: “…a complete and delightful surprise for me. I had especially admired him in his film The General.”
Film critic James Agee: “Much of his Civil War picture The General is within hailing distance of Mathew Brady…Perhaps because ‘dry’ comedy is so much more rare and odd than ‘dry’ wit, there are people who never much cared for Keaton. Those who do cannot care mildly.”
Film and theater critic Walter Kerr: “The General, as a film, has the peculiar quality of not dating at all: we quite forget that we are looking at work done in the 1920’s and tend to identify the pictures we are watching with the period of the narrative. This is only in part due to the fact that is was a costume film to begin with; many costume films of the 1920’s are transparently sham today. It is more nearly due to Keaton’s integral relationship with his background.”
Film critic Gerald Mast, taking a swipe at major studio M-G-M, which killed Keaton’s independent career: “M-G-M was Hollywood’s ‘toniest’ studio. If M-G-M had produced The General, [studio head L.B.] Mayer and [Keaton’s producer Irving] Thalberg would have been more interested in the color of the locomotive than in what Keaton did with it. It would probably have been a white train — with sharp black trim.”
Film critic David Thomson: “The General is not only a comedy but a genuinely heroic film. Buster’s troubles with trains in that film are based on Keaton’s own inquisitive interest in machinery. It was a matter of art that his own handyman’s fascination was translated on film into a Quixotic bewilderment with machinery. Thus I would swap all of [Charlie Chaplin’s] Modern Times for that glorious moment in The General when Buster’s meditation fails to notice the growing motion of the engine’s drive shaft on which he is sitting.”
Film critic Andrew Sarris: “Time has transformed the surface calm of Keaton’s countenance into a subtle beauty. There is a moment in The General when Keaton, exasperated by the stupidity of his Southern Belle sweetheart, makes a mock gesture to choke her, but then kisses her instead. This kiss constitutes one of the most glorious celebrations of heterosexual love in the history of the cinema.”
Film critic Roger Ebert, from his “Great Movies” review of The General: “Today I look at Keaton’s works more often than any other silent films. They have such a graceful perfection, such a meshing of story, character and episode, that they unfold like music. Although they’re filled with gags, you can rarely catch Keaton writing a scene around a gag; instead, the laughs emerge from the situation; he was ‘the still, small, suffering center of the hysteria of slapstick,’ wrote the critic Karen Jaehne. And in an age when special effects were in their infancy, and a ‘stunt’ often meant actually doing on the screen what you appeared to be doing, Keaton was ambitious and fearless. He had a house collapse around him. He swung over a waterfall to rescue a woman he loved. He fell from trains. And always he did it in character, playing a solemn and thoughtful man who trusts in his own ingenuity.”
Chicago Reader columnist Anthony Puccinelli: “Buster Keaton… will be around forever, because it’s unlikely that human beings will ever go out-of-date the way special effects do. Keaton running and clambering onto a moving Civil War train in The General is infinitely more exciting than Christian Slater jumping from a helicopter onto a speeding locomotive in Broken Arrow because what Keaton does is real, and the camera captures and preserves his feats for posterity. In Broken Arrow, we never see Slater (or the stuntman, for that matter) leaping from the helicopter to the train. Instead, there are several cuts, and we must suspend our disbelief and assume that the feat has been accomplished. Which means that it’s no feat at all.”
Elise Nakhnikian in Slant magazine: “Who knew you could wring this much suspense and laughter from a chase scene involving steam engines? Buster, who co-wrote and co-directed The General, also co-edited it, and I suspect it was he who made sure we always see just what we need to and not a frame more. There’s great comic timing in these edits, but there’s also a genius’ understanding of his medium. That train of Buster’s will always run ahead of the curve because he knew how to electrify us just enough to galvanize our imaginations without shorting them out.”
Buster Keaton, when asked why he believed The General looked more authentic than Gone with the Wind: “Well, they went to a novel for their story. We went to history.”