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Buster Keaton reached into the past for what many fans and critics would consider his greatest picture. But the critical acclaim would have to wait until some future day, as his painstaking production was greeted with poor reviews and tepid box office on its initial release in 1927. It wasn't until three decades later that The General (1927) 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.
Filming on such a grand scale brought some problems. At one point, sparks from the authentic engines triggered a forest fire. Fortunately, the National Guard was filming that day, so Keaton commandeered them as an impromptu fire crew. Not only did they put out the fire, but Keaton was awarded an honorary commission in the Guard for his help. Yet the work also required a painstaking attention to detail. To get one cannonball to land just right during the chase sequence, Keaton had to measure out the gunpowder one grain at a time using a pair of tweezers.
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.
Keaton was happy with The General - he often called it his favorite of all his films - but critics and fans weren't. The lavish production and strong plot were more than anybody expected from a slapstick comedy, and contemporary audiences were left confused and even hostile. As a result, the film lost money on its initial release. Shortly after, Schenck sold Keaton's contract to MGM and the silent star lost control of many of his earlier films, which for years became the hardest to find of all the great silent comedies.
Renewed interest in Keaton's silent films was sparked by his appearance in Charles Chaplin's Limelight in 1952. When the Museum of Modern Art in New York scheduled a tribute to United Artists in 1955, The General was the only film so in demand it had to be shown twice. It was voted one of the ten best films ever made in British film magazine Sight and Sound's international critics survey in 1972 and again in 1982. In 1989, it was one of the first films to be voted onto the National Film Registry, marking its official recognition as a national treasure.
Producer: Buster Keaton, Joseph M. Schenck
Director: Clyde Bruckman, Buster Keaton
Screenplay: Al Boasberg, Clyde Bruckman, Buster Keaton, Charlie Smith
Based on The Great Locomotive Chase by Will Pittenger
Cinematography: Bert Haines, Dev Jennings
Score: William P. Perry
Art Direction: Fred Gabourie
Cast: Buster Keaton (Johnnie Gray), Marion Mack (Anabelle Lee), Glen Cavender (Capt. Anderson), Jim Farley (General Thatcher), Frederick Vroom (Southern General), Charles Smith (Annabelle's Father).
by Frank Miller