Home Video Reviews
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