“Buster left a lasting imprint on the community.”

Buster Keaton’s Last Stand

Production for The General involved guns, bombs, fires, and the blowing up of a bridge in a tiny Oregon town. When the filming was over, the comedic legend’s career was in tatters. Forty years later, the movie was hailed as a masterpiece.

On July 23, 1926, one of the most famous actors in the world stood nervously by a river in rural Oregon, ready to shoot a scene that could change the course of his career. The 30-year-old Buster Keaton’s deadpan comedic genius and nail-biting stunt work had already put him alongside legends like Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. His goal today was to shoot the pivotal scene in The General, a comedy-romance-action film based on a real event from the Civil War.

Keaton’s Hollywood crew had pulled into the tiny logging town of Cottage Grove two months earlier, 18 freight cars full of Civil War cannons, stagecoaches, prairie schooners, props, cameras, and over 1,200 costumes. Carpenters built an entire fake town, residents lined up to play bit parts, and hundreds of national guardsmen were recruited for battle scenes. Cottage Grove—and all of the Pacific Northwest, for that matter—had never seen anything like it. Keaton oversaw the entire operation personally, from writing the script to setting up and filming stunts where one slip could be fatal. He did all this despite injuries, lawsuits, forest fires, and budget overruns.

Today was the day for a shot that would make or break the entire production. A steam locomotive was to roll across a burning trestle, which—if everything went as planned—would collapse at exactly the right moment and dump the train into the Row River. At a cost of $42,000—equivalent to more than $600,000 today—it would be the single most expensive shot in silent-film history. And there was exactly one chance to get it right.

posted by Lexica (11 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

It’s amazing how impressive and thrilling the stunts in that movie still are.
posted by octothorpe at 7:35 PM on August 3
It’s available on both Prime Video and Netflix, if you have either of those services.

I’m a bit mystified that I have never seen this, so I will be setting aside some time to view it in the next while. Keaton has long been a favorite of mine. I may discover I have seen this, but didn’t ping on it. I’ll pay closer attention this time.
posted by hippybear at 7:39 PM on August 3

So in the late 40s James Mason had purchased Keaton’s Beverly Hills estate (which had been sold in 1932 two months after Buster’s divorce) and some years later found a forgotten vault of Keatons’ films, including a good copy of The General…
posted by Heywood Mogroot III at 7:46 PM on August 3 [2 favorites]
The article notes that many reviews of the time found it in poor taste. I wonder why. Lionizing the Confederacy was certainly in vogue at the time. It should be seen as shameful now, and the fact that the article did not address that (nor does this post) is gross. It’s okay to have problematic faves, but you have to name the problem and the fact that it IS a problem.
posted by rikschell at 7:51 PM on August 3 [1 favorite]
The article notes that many reviews of the time found it in poor taste.

why yes!

I wonder why.
great question!

“…1989, it was selected by the Library of Congress to be included in the first class of films for preservation in the National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

Lionizing the Confederacy was certainly in vogue at the time.

huh. In the plot, the Confederates didn’t accept his enrollment.

plus major Anderson was blowing up Confederate bridges…not problematic in an insane era.

so what’s the problem? That buster lost his shirt trying to make people laugh?
posted by clavdivs at 8:24 PM on August 3 [4 favorites]

Lionizing the Confederacy was certainly in vogue at the time. It should be seen as shameful now, and the fact that the article did not address that (nor does this post) is gross. It’s okay to have problematic faves, but you have to name the problem and the fact that it IS a problem.

FTA, with emphasis added:

In 1926, Keaton was looking for a follow-up to Battling Butler, his highest-earning film to date. He came across the story of the Andrews raid, the only locomotive chase of the Civil War. In April 1862, a Union raiding party slipped across the battle lines and headed for Marietta, Georgia. They commandeered a steam train named the General while the crew and passengers were eating breakfast, then raced northward with other trains in pursuit. The raiders pried up rails, cut telegraph lines, and tried—unsuccessfully—to burn a bridge behind them. Confederate troops captured them after an 87-mile chase. Of the 24 Union raiders, 8 were executed; 19 later received the Medal of Honor.

posted by Lexica at 9:14 PM on August 3 [4 favorites]

huh. In the plot, the Confederates didn’t accept his enrollment. . . . so what’s the problem?

It’s not nearly as bad as Gone with the Wind let alone Birth of a Nation but huh? If you transferred the plot to a 1942 movie and had a flat-footed middle manager, unable to serve abroad, prove himself by uncovering a German spy ring it’d be a little too unsubtle to be good propaganda.

It’s funny as hell, but Keaton’s character is literally first in line to volunteer for the Confederate army, and the whole arc is him proving himself “patriotic” (in a treason in defense of slavery sort of way) despite not being in the army. I’ve only seen it once because I’d have to try hard to forget which side he’s fighting for to really enjoy it.

FTA, with emphasis added:

I had a similar reaction to Rikschell and don’t quite see the point of the passage you quote? They certainly don’t say “this is a problem.” It’s not like they are keeping the plot secret, but they describe it in neutral terms and move on, as if which side the audience is supposed to root for doesn’t matter–which mirrors my only complaint about the movie.
posted by mark k at 9:38 PM on August 3

(Spoilers to nearly 100 year old film ahead)

But in the film, Keaton changed the story, making the protagonist a Southern engineer who tried to enlist in the Confederate army but was refused due to the importance of his occupation (thus earning the disdain of his sweetheart who thinks he’s a coward). Then when the Union spies steal the General, inadvertently with the protagonist’s love interest on board, Keaton’s character chases them down and recaptures the General, returning it (and his love interest) back to Georgia, providing valuable intelligence on a coming Union attack, and winning himself a place in the Confederate army for his valor.

Supposedly Keaton changed to the story to make the protagonist a Southerner as he thought (White) audiences at the time would not accept a Union protagonist. I don’t know whether The General really “lionizes” the Confederacy per se, but it certainly treats it sympathetically, while as I recall the Union characters range in portrayal from being honorable adversaries to outright villains. The story is definitely told from a Southern/Confederate point of view. In my opinion it’s not a particularly egregious portrayal all things considered, but it certainly fits into the Jim Crow era trend of whitewashing the history of the Civil War, which both White Southerners and White Northerners participated in.

It is a really incredible film though. I just saw it for the first time a few months ago and it’s well worth watching.

(On preview: I agree with mark k.)
posted by biogeo at 9:49 PM on August 3 [2 favorites]

I’ve got family who grew up in that area, and people were still talking about the filming of that movie well into the 50s, at least. Allegedly an uncle of mine was an extra and accidentally led a cavalry charge in one scene, because his his horse was an asshole. An asshole who nearly broke his neck, but a photogenic asshole.

Gotta watch the movie again and see if that part is actually even in there; all I can actually remember are ridiculous train stunts.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 10:12 PM on August 3 [2 favorites]

you transferred the plot to a 1942 movie and had a flat-footed middle manager, unable to serve abroad, prove himself by uncovering a German spy ring it’d be a little too unsubtle to be good propaganda.

You haven’t seen Abbott and Costello.
posted by clavdivs at 10:51 PM on August 3 [2 favorites]

Some felt the Civil War was no subject for a comedy. “Many of his gags are in gruesomely bad taste,” wrote Life magazine. A scene in which a Union soldier is impaled by a sword that Johnnie flings by mistake, tame by modern standards, especially didn’t go over well.

So even then, it was considered problematic. An interesting question to ask is, if Keaton had reverse the armies and joined the Union, would anything change about the story? Did the Confederate army do anything in the film to w/r/t its political agenda? I think not. In the film, Keaton doesn’t enlist because he’s a racist or slaveowner, he enlists because he’s hot for a girl. He’s apparently completely naive and disinterested otherwise, which to me is part of the joke. It may be the case that Keaton chose the confederacy to take advantage of some sympathy for the supposed underdog (or because it was the historically accurate take) but I don’t see any evidence that this is a revisionist or pro-Confederacy movie. I think the film falls more into “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” or “Are We The Baddies?” territory than “Triumph of the Will” or “Birth of a Nation” territory.

Whatever, though. It’s an cinematic and acrobatic achievement, a good yarn and a piece of history. I’d say it belongs in a museum if it wasn’t already there. I’d like to go to that town and poke around.
posted by klanawa at 1:02 AM on August 4

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