The General (1926) may have brought an end to the peak of Buster Keaton’s career, but it’s retrospectively seen as his masterpiece.
A total masterclass in creativity despite (and, in part, due to) technological limitations, Keaton delivered one of the very best silent era films.
Slapstick and Stone Face in The General
The General is an action-adventure-comedy. The plot is loosely based on the Great Locomotive Chase, a military raid of April 12th, 1862, during the American Civil War.
The film follows Jonnie Gray (Buster Keaton), a Western & Atlantic Railroad train engineer. When he arrives in Marietta, Georgia, he visits the home of Anabelle Lee (Marion Mack in her screen debut, she was 23/24).
However, the American Civil War breaks out. Gray vows to enlist in the Confederate Army, but is rejected as his skills as an engineer are needed elsewhere.
That leads to Lee’s family believing he’s cowardly and not interested in the war effort. She rejects him.
A year later, Gray and Lee end up inadvertently involved in a Union spy effort to steal some trains.
Lee is kidnapped, and Gray must bumble his way towards rescuing her and saving the day in a high speed chase across railroads.
That’s probably the most famous scene from the movie, there.
Keaton was in incredible physical shape in the 1920s, capable of performing backflips on the spot (amongst many other things).
And he put his natural strength into use for many of his stunts. Not least here—yanking up a massive plank to hurl onto another one.
An impressive physical feat. But also highly ingenious, to this day, as a piece of physical comedy. And that’s really where The General continues to impress.
The Vaudeville theatre movement Keaton was involved in as a child, it all led to his remarkable physical abilities. To make impressive falls and not injure himself—he’d had a lifetime of training to master it.
The type of humour Keaton had to deliver is a lot different to what we have now.
Yes, we still have slapstick. You can see that in Niles from Frasier and major stunts with Tom Cruise in any movie he’s in.
But most modern humour is delivered with sound, context, plot. Keaton had to do without that. “The Art of the Gag”, as explained in the brilliant video below. This one covers Keaton’s concepts and his use of Edwin A. Abott’s 2D Flatland.
As with all of his other films, Keaton very much indeed took on all the stunts by himself. It’s a remarkable thing, really.
There were no special effects. No stunt doubles. No CGI.
It was just Keaton, his crew, and him performing everything. Often with the consequences being severe injury or death if he messed up.
As a narrative structure, The General is a basic damsel in distress type of romp. Nothing particularly noteworthy, but it all builds towards a dramatic conclusion.
And it’s important to remember just how pioneering these early films were.
The General’s climatic scene is one of the most famous in cinema. An incredibly expensive stunt involving the destruction of a bridge and train.
Watching the film now, almost 100 years later, you can’t help be incredibly impressed by all of this. Yes, it shows its age in many areas (as you’d expect).
But alongside the incredible stunts, some of the cinematography is very impressive. Keaton just had a natural eye for making scenes memorable.
Very impressive indeed, then, and you can see its influences in modern films everywhere to this day.
The General’s Troublesome Production
On May 26th 1926, the cast and crew arrived at the filming location—Cottage Grove of Oregon near the west coast of America. Filming began on June 8th 1926.
Keaton brought with him 18 freight cars packed with props and set materials for the lavish production. That included Civil War cannons, passenger cars, stagecoaches, houses, and wagons. All of them built, or reconfigured, to represent life in 1861.
1,500 locals were also hired for the lavish sets and scenes for the production. During breaks from filming, cast, crew, and locals would spend their time playing baseball.
Three 35mm cameras were used to record everything.
The ongoing costs ($400 an hour) greatly aggravated the film’s producer Joseph Schenck, leading to tensions on set.
Marion Mack (making her debut performance) noted in an interview years later that Keaton actually ignored her in the early days of the shoot. She said:
“Buster just stuck to the job and to his little clique, and that was all.”
However, during the shoot the pair began getting on and Keaton, accepting her into his clique, would play practical jokes on her.
But due to the dangerous nature of Keaton’s work, he was under a massive amount of stress to deliver the project. And, of course, with every stunt he did he was also genuinely putting his life on the line. There was no guarantee he’d survive The General’s shoot.
The production’s ambitious scenes did lead to accidents:
- Keaton was knocked out (it’s not clear during which scene)
- An assistant director was shot in the face
- One train wheel rammed over an actor’s foot (leading to a $2,900 lawsuit)
- The train’s engine caused multiple on-set fires, which spread to nearby forests and farming lands
- A huge fire during a fight scene, costing the production $50,000 (this massive fire also caused so much smoke filming had to briefly stop)
For the famous scene where the train crashes off the bridge (the most lavish on-set stunt ever recorded, at the time) the whole town declared a local holiday to go and watch it.
Hundreds of people turned up alongside the existing 500+ crew members and extras. Here’s a colourised version of the big moment.
Six cameras were used for that scene, the whole thing costing $42,000 to shoot. And that remains the most expensive scene in silent era filmmaking.
The train’s remains were left in the river.
That led to the river being a tourist attraction for film buffs. Up until WWII, anyway, when the train was salvaged and used for scrap parts in America’s war effort.
Anyway, Keaton wrapped up the shoot on September 18th, 1926.
With some 200,000 feet of film reel to deal with, he then started the editing process and that ran until December.
After going through all that, the film opened at two cinemas in Tokyo, on 31st December 1926. The American premiere followed on February 5th, 1927, in New York.
Critics of the day weren’t impressed at all, considering the film unfunny and not up to the standard of Keaton’s previous films. Many lambasted it as “tedious”.
Despite that, Keaton remained more proud of the work than anything else he ever did. And retrospective reviews now consider it a cinematic masterpiece and one of the best films ever made.
In 1989, it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry, reserved for works of significant cultural and historical value.
After The General’s Failure
At the time, this was the most expensive film ever produced. With a budget of some $750,000, its subsequent flop at the cinema hit Keaton hard.
It only went on to make $1 million at the 1920s box office, with $474,264 of that coming from the US.
The failure of The General led to Keaton losing his independence as a filmmaker with his company Buster Keaton Productions. He had to take up a deal with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, restricting his creative capacity.
This triggered off a series of issues for Keaton. His popularity waned as technological advances introduced sound to movies.
But the real issues stemmed from his personal life. On 21st May 1921, he married silent film actress Natalie Talmadge (1896-1969). Here they are in a scene together from 1923’s Our Hospitality.
Buster Keaton and his wife Natalie Talmadge in Our Hospitality (1923) pic.twitter.com/yBysEHt1MG
— Silent Movie GIFs (@silentmoviegifs) October 10, 2022
After the couple had two children, the relationship soured dramatically and resulted in a 1932 divorce.
The stress of that, alongside the loss of his filmmaking independence, led to a period of serious alcoholism. It got so bad Keaton was institutionalized.
Whilst incarcerated, he used his skillset to escape from his straitjacket.
He married again in 1933 to a nurse called Mae Scriven, but that was during one of this drunken episodes. Keaton had no memory of how the marriage had occurred. In the immediate aftermath, even Scriven had no idea what her new husband’s first name was.
That soon led to another divorce, costing Keaton a fortune.
Happily, he married the dancer Eleanor Norris (1918-1998) in May 1940. They were the ideal couple and remained married until Keaton’s death in 1966. She’s credited for getting his life and career back on track.
As despite that difficult spell, Buster Keaton did completely revive his career and come back strong. In the 1940s, 1950s, and up until his death he cemented his position in cinema as an all-time legend.
That’s a fitting tribute to the man, we think. Not many people could overcome such issues with rebounding success. And he did it all in creative style.
Watch The General Movie!
It seems strange such a great film could lead to so many problems for Keaton. Watching it now, you’d be oblivious to all of the trouble it caused.
But the good news is, as it launched in 1926, The General is now in the public domain. That means it’s free to distribute online and watch without breaching any copyright laws.
If you’ve got a spare hour, it’s well worth a watch. It’s pioneering cinematic work in action from a comedic master flexing his creative muscles.