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The General

The General(1927)

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What Great Stone Face? Yes, one can see why Buster Keaton was called that. His features often were frozen, expressionless to the point of inscrutability. It was a way of setting him apart from other silent clowns. Most -- led by Chaplin – mugged outrageously. Keaton went the opposite route. In later years, he was hailed as a sort of existential hero – stoically taking on whatever fate threw at him. Given Keaton's prodigious inventiveness, fate threw plenty. But the face was never stony. Orson Welles called it beautiful. Even pushed into near-parody by lots of eyeliner, Keaton's eyes are hugely expressive. Large, sentient, sensitive, the eyes of a dreamer even when pressed into action, they remain an early reminder that great films are often about faces. Keaton's eyes speak of bravery, the enduring kind, not the heroic kind, especially in The General (1926), his great railroad silent, based on the true story of a daring Union attempt to hijack a Confederate locomotive in 1862.

Early on, we see his Georgia engineer, Johnnie Gray, in one of the classic Keaton shots that invariably shows up in clip reels. Keaton sits on the camshaft of a locomotive, oblivious to the fact that it has begun to move, taking him up and down with it. He's just too immersed in thoughts of the ingénue he loves, Mabel Mack's Annabel Lee, to take note of the world around him. When he moves, he moves non-stop as the engineer pursuing his stolen locomotive. Snapped out of his reverie, he's propelled through one high-speed crisis after another as he desperately steams down the track toward Chattanooga to prevent the prize locomotive known as The General from falling into Union hands forever and severing the South's foremost supply and communications line.

Not that anyone thinks of him as a hero. When he goes to enlist after hearing that Fort Sumter has been fired upon and the Civil War has begun, he's turned away on the grounds that he's more valuable to the Confederacy as a railroad engineer than as a soldier. Annabel and her family don't know this, and shun him as a coward. But after Union spies lure the passengers off the train for a breakfast break, she alone returns for a forgotten pocketbook. So, unwittingly along for the ride, she's his companion in arms as the adventure begins. The ensuing adventure gets thrillingly frantic, with Keaton, long hair and floppy bow tie blowing in the breeze, being separated from the train at intervals, only to hurl himself back on with hairbreadth tolerances at high speeds, clambering up and down the roofs of boxcars, hanging from ladders, fighting his way in, out of, and back into the cab. The train itself could easily have stolen the film. But not here. They seem a team.

His composure remains undentable through even the most strenuously improvised acrobatics. Of course, Keaton, the old vaudevillean (who cast his vaudevillean father, Joe, as a Union general) was a master of physical comedy -- deft, economical, athletic, hurtling through difficulty after difficulty with dignity, economy and improvisatory élan. But never was the so-called Great Stone Face blank, not if you looked at the eyes, alive with an awareness that the world was filled with hazards, few of which he expected to be spared, never soliciting sympathy, too aware of his own powerlessness to meet the world with the dazzling élan of a Douglas Fairbanks, but no less acrobatic as he pluckily pushes on, unswerving as the train in a film needing only 50 subtitles (200-300 was the norm) to tell its propulsive story.

Keaton once described his persona as that of an honest little guy, just trying to get through life. It's enough that he knows he's trying to do the honorable thing, even when the rest of the world doesn't. It's the modesty that turns his gallantry into something approaching nobility. Not for him the favor-courting, almost cloying smile of The Little Tramp, forever doffing his derby. Nor for that matter, the latter's balletic grace. Keaton's everyman is a guy always trying to weather or outrun one kind of storm or another. Think how many of his movies show him being chased by this or that multitude, all wanting a piece of him, while he scrambles frantically, asking only that the fates allow him to emerge in one piece.

The General became famous as the film in which he emerges in one piece, chivalric heroism intact, but a train doesn't. Keaton's shot of an actual train crashing into a river when a burning trestle collapses was film's most expensive special effect at the time. We see the train push through the burning part of the bridge and almost make it to the other side. But too much of the trestle has burned through. The trestle collapses, the train bends into a V shape. It and the locomotive, sliding back down the track it had just crossed, plunge into the river. Good thing they got it on the first try. There wouldn't have been a second. It cost $42,000 to send the pursuing locomotive into Oregon's Rock River, where it remained, until salvaged for scrap iron in World War II. Why Oregon? Keaton first went to Chattanooga, where The General was then housed, to secure it for the film. But Southerners took umbrage when he told them the film would be a comedy. So he found and retrofitted two narrow-gauge trains of similar vintage along parallel tracks (one was used for filming) at a logging camp in Oregon.

The elaborate filming (home movies of the shoot, and of Keaton posing with the locals, accompany Kino's rich two-disc DVD reissue) also involved the hiring of the Oregon National Guard, half in rented Union uniforms, half in Confederate. Just as well they were on hand -- they helped extinguish a forest fire set off by a spark from the train. Keaton insisted the engine be converted back to wood-burning from coal-burning for authenticity's sake. Speaking of authenticity, The General almost matter-of-factly captures a Civil War ambience unmatched since D.W. Griffith (Welles says it's 100 times more accurate than Gone with the Wind). Another fascinating extra aimed straight at the hearts of railroad buffs tells the real story of the raid (stopped 19 miles outside of Chattanooga) and the train (it had three iron siblings: The President, The Senator and The Chieftain) painted dark green and red-orange in the days before conversion to coal turned locomotives black and sooty. Keaton, like film itself, got a lot of mileage out of trains, but never more than in The General.

For more information about The General, visit Kino International.To order The General, go to TCM Shopping.

by Jay Carr
Buster Keaton fans can now rejoice because Blackhawk has just released a double bill of The General and Steamboat Bill, Jr. on one DVD, distributed by Image Entertainment - and the disc looks great. The pictorial quality is outstanding (would you expect anything less from Blackhawk's resident film archivist David Shepard?) and new scores by The Alloy Orchestra have been added which greatly enhance one's enjoyment of both features.

Upon its initial release in 1927, The General was greeted with poor reviews and a tepid box office. It wasn't until three decades later that Keaton's film would be hailed as one of the greatest motion pictures ever made.

For the story of a Confederate engineer who races to save the woman he loves and his beloved locomotive, "The General," from Union spies during the Civil War, Keaton turned to history. The story had been told from the Northern perspective in The Great Locomotive Chase by Will Pittenger, one of the Northern soldiers who had stolen The General at Big Shanty, just north of Atlanta. "I took that page of history, and I stuck to it in all detail," Keaton would later say. "I staged it exactly the way it happened." He made one change, however. Where the book had told the story from the Union viewpoint, he made his hero a Southerner, reasoning that the Confederate side of the war would be more sympathetic.

Keaton's producing partner, Joseph M. Schenck, gave him a $400,000 budget, a huge figure for any film in the silent era, much less a slapstick comedy. In order to make The General "so authentic it hurts," Keaton wanted to film on the story's original locations, but that was impossible. The narrow-gauge railways used in the Civil War had long since been replaced in Georgia and Tennessee. He also wanted to use The General itself, then on display in Chattanooga, but the railroad that owned it didn't consider a comedy about the Civil War appropriate. Instead, Keaton's location manager found miles of narrow-gauge railroad tracks in the area around Cottage Grove, Oregon. They even found three antique locomotives they could use in the film.

In May of 1926, Keaton moved his production company, including 18 freight cars of props and set pieces, to Oregon. For the next two months, they made Cottage Grove their base, building the town of Marietta, Georgia, nearby and employing 500 Oregon National Guardsmen to play the two armies. To make the military scenes impressive, he would dress the soldiers as the Union Army and film them crossing the screen in one direction, then put them in Confederate uniforms and have them cross the screen the other way.

The most spectacular scene in The General depicts a train plunging to destruction when a burning bridge collapses. The scene was shot full-scale, using a real train Keaton had purchased just to destroy. This meant, however, that they had to get it in one take. Crew members spent hours setting up the stunt just right, with six cameras positioned to get the scene from the best possible angles. They couldn't risk putting actors on the train, so they had a lifelike dummy to stand in for the engineer. When they finally shot the scene, the dummy was so convincing that townspeople who'd come to watch screamed in horror. The shot went off without a hitch, but cost $42,000 (almost $2 million in contemporary terms), making it the most expensive single shot in silent film history. The ruined train would remain at the location until it was salvaged for scrap metal during World War II.

The disc's second feature, Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), tells the simple story of a grizzled, rough and tumble sailor (played by noted character actor Ernest Torrence) visited by the son he hasn't seen since he was a child. But what should be a blissful father and son reunion instead reveals a hilarious generation gap between a Mississippi riverboat captain and his spoiled, college educated son.

Visiting from his school in Boston, the effete William Canfield Jr. (Buster Keaton) dressed in bow tie, beret and pencil mustache has immediate difficulty adapting to his gruff father's working class life. First catching a glimpse of Bill, Jr. at the train station mugging and playing his ukulele for a small child, Bill, Sr. recoils in horror, embarrassed by the undignified foppishness of his son's behavior. Bill, Sr. immediately strives to overhaul his son, and make him more suited to co-captain his ancient, dilapidated riverboat: the "Stonewall Jackson."

Bill Sr. escorts his son to the barbershop where he demands "take that barnacle off his lip" then takes Bill, Jr. shopping in an effort to make him over -- a sequence which includes some wonderfully subtle comedy as they debate the ideal headwear. Try as he might, Bill, Jr. can't quite please his father, and his luck in love is not much better. Also visiting River Junction is college classmate Mary King (Marion Byron) whose father King (Tom McGuire) owns River Junction's more modern and luxurious rival riverboat "The King." The two captains are soon bickering incessantly and the young couple's love seems doomed.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. demonstrates Keaton's creative range and comic inventiveness in tackling everything from subdued, facial comedy to stumbling pratfalls, as with a sequence where a hurricane races through the town, toppling buildings like matchsticks. That famous cinematic storm also includes one of the comic star's most legendary stunts, when the facade of a three-story house falls down on top of Bill, Jr., who is saved from being crushed by a well-placed window. The gag appeared in two other Keaton films, Back Stage (1919) and One Week (1920) with smaller buildings, but the Steamboat Bill, Jr. version was the ultimate stunt, posing a great deal of danger for Keaton if he in any way miscalculated the complex gag. The comedian remarked later in his career, "I was mad at the time, or I would never have done the thing."

Steamboat Bill, Jr. was the last of Keaton's independent films made for producer Joseph M. Schenck, bringing to a close one of the most fruitful collaborations in the annals of silent comedy. Keaton continued making films for Metro Goldwyn Mayer but his brand of spontaneously innovative slapstick did not translate to the regimented structure of the Hollywood studio system. He made one more great film, The Cameraman (1928), but many consider the films that followed the beginning of a decline in Keaton's innovative comedy output. The coming of sound also had a negative impact on Keaton's career; his talent for stunts and visual gags was no longer valued by an industry infatuated with the new sound pictures and Keaton increasingly turned to alcohol for solace, creating further problems for himself.

For more information about The General/Steamboat Bill, Jr., visit Image Entertainment. To order The General/Steamboat Bill, Jr., go to TCM Shopping.

by Frank Miller & Felicia Feaster