The General


1h 23m 1927
The General

Brief Synopsis

In this silent film, a Confederate engineer fights to save his train and his girlfriend from the Union army.

Film Details

Genre
Comedy
War
Silent
Period
Release Date
Feb 5, 1927
Premiere Information
not available
Production Company
Buster Keaton Productions
Distribution Company
United Artists Corp.
Country
United States
Location
Santa Monica, California, USA; Cottage Grove, Oregon, USA; McKenzie River, Oregon, USA; Hollywood, California, USA; Cottage Grove, Oregon, United States; Hollywood, California, United States; McKenzie River, Oregon, United States; Santa Monica, California, United States
Screenplay Information
Based on the novel Daring and Suffering: A History of the Great Railroad Adventure by William Pittenger (Philadelphia, 1863).

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 23m
Sound
Silent
Color
Black and White (Sepiatone)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
1.33 : 1
Film Length
7,500ft (8 reels)

Synopsis

Youthful locomotive engineer Johnnie Gray of the Watern and Atlantic Railroad has two loves in his life, his train engine, which he has named "The General," and his girl friend Annabelle Lee. On a spring day in 1861 when Jonnie visits Annabelle in Marietta, Georgia, he learns that Confederate troops have fired upon Fort Sumter and joins the throng of Southerns attempting to enlist in the Confederate Army. When he is rejected because his skill as an engineer is deemed vital to the cause, Johnnie attempts to enlist under various disguises. The recruiting officer finally ejects him, causing Johnnie to exclaim, "If you lose this war don't blame me." When Johnnie is too upset to answer Annabelle's father questions about enlisting, her father assumes Johnnie is shirking his patriotic duty. When Annabelle confronts Johnnie about enlisting, Johnnie tells her the truth, but Annabelle tells him not to speak to her until he is in uniform. A year later, in a Union encampment just north of Chattanooga, General Thatcher and his chief spy, Captain Anderson, make plans to sabotage the Confederate railroad: They will enter the South posing as civilians, steal a train then proceed North, burning every bridge along the way to cut off supplies to the southern troops. Union General Parker will advance to engage the Confederates in a surprise attack on day they steal the train. Meanwhile, in Marietta, Annabelle, who still shuns Johnnie, boards The General en route to visit her father, who has been wounded in the war. When all the passengers disembark at Big Shanty for dinner, except Annabelle, who is in the luggage car searching for her trunk, the disguised Union spies remove the pin to the passenger cars and steal the engine and luggage car. While Johnnie chases The General with a hand-operated car, the Union soldiers discover Annabelle and tie her up. Johnnie is than derailed and continues on a penny-farthing bike until he reaches the Confederate encampment in Kinston, where he convinces an officer to help him find the train. After Confederate troops are loaded into several railroad cars, Johnnie leaves the station piloting an engine called The Texas; however, he is so preoccupied with the chase that he fails to look behind him until miles down the track, where he realizes that the troop cars are not attached to the engine. Deciding to fight for The General alone, Johnny attaches a car with a canon he finds on the tracks. As he approaches The General, Johnnie attempts to load and fire the cannon, but he accidentally jostles it in the direction of his train. As Johnnie rushes to the front of the train to protect himself from the blast, the train rounds a bend causing the cannon to fire at the Union soldiers instead. The Union soldiers, now fearing for their lives, disconnect their last car in hopes of stopping The Texas. Johnnie spots the slowing car and tries to switch it onto another set of tracks; however, the Union soldiers then drop a log across the tracks,which derails the car. Johnnie, having just turned his head, is baffled when he finds the car has suddenly disappeared. As the Union soldiers throw more logs across the tracks, Johnnie runs to the cow-catcher at the front of the train and cleverly pushes the logs off the track. At a changing station, the Union soldiers switch tracks to divert Johnnie, but Johnnie connects back to the main rail. As the chase continues, Johnnie is so absorbed with cutting wood to feed his boiler that he does not notice the hundreds of Confederate soldiers fleeing south as General Parker's victorious Union army advances. When he finally realizes he is crossing into enemy territory, Johnnie abandons his train and runs into the woods to hide. During a rainstorm that night, Johnnie sneaks into a home for shelter, but finds himself trapped under the dining room table when a group of Union officers seat themselves to discuss their battle plans. Johnnie learns that Union soldiers are planning a surprise attack for the following morning and that Annabelle is their prisoner. Later, as the others sleep, Johnnie manages to escape the dining room, change into a Union uniform and rescue Annabelle. They flee into forest, where lightening sends them running into each other's arms. The next day, Johnnie decides they must warn the Confederates about the attack. After stuffing Annabelle into a sack, Johnnie loads her onto a freight car attached to The General and then takes off towards the South. As Union troops began a chase, Johnnie helps Annabelle into The General, then unpins the luggage car, thus hampering the Union car's speed until they are able to remove the car. When Johnnie leaves the train to move a crosstie, Annabelle, unable to work the gears, runs the engine forward and backward, leaving Johnnie behind, until he finally catches the train. As they reach Rock River bridge, Johnnie sets the bridge on fire to hinder their pursuers. When Annabelle accidentally puts a burning log between Johnnie and the train, Johnnie tries to leap onto the train, but misses the track and falls straight in to the water below. Upon reaching southern territory, they rush to the Confederate headquarters, where Johnnie informs the commander of Union plans and Annabelle is reunited with her father. Soon after, the Confederate troops arrive at the bridge just as the Union soldiers attempt to drive the supply train over it. As a car plunges into the water, the Confederate Army fires at the approaching Union troops who are fording the river. Johnnie attempts to help by firing a cannon, but aims it in wrong direction. The blast breaks a dam upstream, flooding the river and washing out a whole line of approaching Union soldiers. Victorious, Johnnie returns to southern headquarters, where he is commissioned as a lieutenant and thus wins the love of Annabelle. When passing soldiers salute the new officer, Johnnie embraces Annabelle with his left hand, freeing his right hand to salute.

Film Details

Genre
Comedy
War
Silent
Period
Release Date
Feb 5, 1927
Premiere Information
not available
Production Company
Buster Keaton Productions
Distribution Company
United Artists Corp.
Country
United States
Location
Santa Monica, California, USA; Cottage Grove, Oregon, USA; McKenzie River, Oregon, USA; Hollywood, California, USA; Cottage Grove, Oregon, United States; Hollywood, California, United States; McKenzie River, Oregon, United States; Santa Monica, California, United States
Screenplay Information
Based on the novel Daring and Suffering: A History of the Great Railroad Adventure by William Pittenger (Philadelphia, 1863).

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 23m
Sound
Silent
Color
Black and White (Sepiatone)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
1.33 : 1
Film Length
7,500ft (8 reels)

Articles

The General


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).
BW-80m.

by Frank Miller
The General

The General

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. SchenckDirector: 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). BW-80m. by Frank Miller

The General (Ultimate 2-Disc Edition) - Buster Keaton's Masterpiece - THE GENERAL, the Ultimate 2-Disc Edition on DVD


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

The General (Ultimate 2-Disc Edition) - Buster Keaton's Masterpiece - THE GENERAL, the Ultimate 2-Disc Edition on DVD

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

The General/Steamboat Bill, Jr.


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

The General/Steamboat Bill, Jr.

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

Quotes

If you lose this war don't blame me.
- Johnnie Gray

Trivia

The final battle scene sparked a small forest fire around the river. Buster Keaton, his crew, and the extras stopped filming to fight the fire.

Buster Keaton always said that The General was his favorite movie.

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 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 Oregon National Guard troops) 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.

Notes

Although Buster Keaton is listed above the title for the film in the opening credits, he is last in the cast of characters at the end of the film. The General is based on an event in the American Civil War that happened in the spring of 1862. A spy named James J. Andrews, accompanied by Union soldiers, penetrated Confederate lines in Tennessee, stole a train in Marietta, Georgia and drove it North. They intended to destroy track and bridges to prevent the Confederates from sending troops to counter an intended surprise attack in Tennessee. Andrews was captured outside Chatanooga because of train difficulties, and the persistence of the train's Confederate conductor, William Fuller, who persued the train on foot, by handcar and train. The Union soliders were later awarded Congressional Medals of Honour for their efforts.
       During The General's production, Joseph Schenck, producer and president of Buster Keaton Productions, became president of United Artists. One of Schenck's first decisions at United Artists was to give additional funding to complete The General and for United Artists to distribute the film. According to modern sources, the film was not financial success for either Schenck and United Artists.
       According to modern sources, The General was shot on location near Cottage Grove, Oregon, the McKenzie River in Oregon, Santa Monica and Hollywood, California. Keaton attempted to use historically accurate locomotives, sets and costumes from the Civil War period film. As part of the production, a small river was damed to create the look of the wide Mississippi River. When an appropriate trestle bridge could not be found, Keaton ordered one built. Several modern sources claim that the scene in which the train crashes from this bridge cost over $42,000, making it the most expensive single scene to be shot in silent films to date. Keaton performed all of his own stunts, which put him in great danger during the production.
       The crew for the film included 500 members of the Oregon National Guard, who were hired as army soldiers. Keaton's father, Joe Keaton, plays a Union general in the film. Modern sources add Richard Allen; Jimmy Bryant; Budd Fine; Frank Hagney; Ray Hanford; Al Hanson; Anthony Harvey, I; Edward Hearn; Ross McCutheon; Tom Moran; Charles Phillips; Red Rial; Ray Thomas and Ted Thompson; Jackie Lowe, Jackie Hanlon and Jack Dempster to the cast. Modern sources also credit Harry Barnes as the film's assistant director, Sherman Kell as the film editor, Harry Barnes as assistant editor and Fred C. Ryle with makeup.
       In later interviews, Keaton described The General as one of his favorite films. Although the contemporary reviews were mixed, the film received critical acclaim in the 1960s, a few years before before Keaton's death in 1966. Many modern sources have proclaimed the film to be the greatest comic epic of all time. In 2007, The General was ranked 18th on AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies-10th Anniversary Edition list of the greatest American films and was also ranked 18th on AFI's list of funniest movies.
       The Walt Disney Studios used the same source material for The Great Locomotive Chase in 1956, directed by Francis D. Lyon and starring Fess Parker; however, this film was told from a Union soldier's viewpoint, and was not a comedy.
       Although modern sources note that Keaton was hired to create gags for Red Skelton to use in the 1948 M-G-M film A Southern Yankee (see AFI Catalog of Feature Film, 1941-50), which was also based on the same historical incident, the plot of the M-G-M film is only slightly related to it or either The General or The Great Locomotive Chase. In the 1960s reissue of the The General, new sound effects and new score by Konrad Elfers were created for the film, but the original titles were retained.

Miscellaneous Notes

Released in United States 1927

Released in United States 1973

Released in United States January 2000

Shown in New York City (Anthology Film Archives) as part of program "Kino International Retrospective" January 6-27, 2000.

Selected in 1989 for inclusion in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry.

Released in United States 1927

Released in United States 1973 (Shown at FILMEX: Los Angeles International Film Exposition (The Great American Films) November 15 ¿ December 16, 1973.)

Released in United States January 2000 (Shown in New York City (Anthology Film Archives) as part of program "Kino International Retrospective" January 6-27, 2000.)