Buster Keaton Blogathon- “The General” (1926)

This is super late. I’m not even going to pretend that it’s even vaguely on-time. I ended up being busy this weekend and didn’t have time to write the post. But I wanted to write about this film regardless of whether or not it was part of an event. As a native Oregonian, I’m always interested in seeing films that were filmed in Oregon, especially classic films in Oregon. Oregon doesn’t seem to be a filming hot spot. It’s especially fun to see things that were around at the time of the film’s production that are still around today.

Buster Keaton’s The General was one of Keaton’s pet projects as he was a big fan of trains and had read the William Pittenger’s (former Union Army soldier) 1863 memoir, The Great Locomotive Chase. In his book, Pittenger describes the events of the 1862 “Great Locomotive Chase” which was a military raid that occurred in Georgia during the Civil War. Keaton wanted to bring the story of the Great Locomotive Chase to the silver screen, but of course wanted to tell the story using his patented brand of comedy. He wanted to rent the actual General locomotive that was used in the real chase, but the owners denied his request upon hearing that his envisioned film was a comedy. In the story, Keaton also changed the perspective of the story by presenting the Confederates in a positive light. Obviously, these days that decision would probably be quite controversial.

The next step was to find a suitable filming location. Keaton’s location manager ended up discovering Cottage Grove, OR a small town about 30 minutes south of Eugene, 2.5 hours south of Portland. Near Cottage Grove, there was an old-fashioned railroad already intact which was perfect for The General. The crew also discovered that the local railway–Oregon, Pacific and Eastern Railway owned two Civil War-era vintage trains. They purchased a third locomotive to serve as the “Texas,” solely to use in a planned trainwreck scene. With the location and needed trains in place, production was underway.

The General is simply a story about Johnnie Gray (Keaton), the Western & Atlantic train engineer. He operates the locomotive, “The General.” He is visiting his fiancee, Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack) in Marietta, GA when the Civil War breaks out. To impress his fiancee’s father, he tries to enlist in the Confederate Army but is denied because his occupation as a train engineer is too valuable to risk his death in the war. He accepts this reasoning and tries to walk away but in the process, he is spotted by Annabelle’s father and brother who assume that he is uninterested in joining the war. Upset about her husband-to-be’s supposed lack of patriotism, Annabelle tells Johnnie that she will not marry him unless he joins the Confederacy.

A year passes and Johnnie continues his work as the engineer of The General. One day, Annabelle boards the train with Johnnie’s General guiding the way. Annabelle’s father is ill and she is traveling to see him. Shortly after boarding, the train is hijacked by the Union Army spies and they end up stealing not only the train, but The General too. After giving chase, Johnnie ends up manning another locomotive, the Texas. Much of the remainder of the film involves Johnnie trying to not only save Annabel, but also The General as well.

Buster Keaton actually counted out individual grains of gunpowder to achieve the desired cannon effect!

There are many very impressive scenes, including the famous scene of The Texas driving onto a burning bridge and collapsing into the water below. There’s another very dangerous stunt that Keaton pulls off which involves him dislodging a railroad tie while a train quickly approaches. There’s another amazing (but dangerous) stunt where Keaton sits on the coupling rod on the wheel of the train while it is moving. Keaton had a lot of fearlessness and nerve when performing his stunts and they’re fascinating to watch. He was in a league of his own when it came to physical stunts.

The General, while maybe not my favorite Keaton film, is very funny and had a lot of amazing scenes. And while there aren’t really any scenes of Cottage Grove or neighboring Oregon locales that I recognize, I love knowing that Buster Keaton was here in 1926 filming one of his classic films–a classic film that Orson “Citizen Kane” Welles declared “perhaps the greatest film ever made.” The town of Cottage Grove very much embraces their place in Buster Keaton history and in 2002, painted a mural of Keaton in The General, on the side of the former Cottage Grove Hotel in the historic downtown district. The mural is due to be refurbished this year. There’s also a cafe called “Buster’s Main Street Cafe” that (I believe) is housed in the building that the mural is painted on.

As a native Oregonian, I am proud to have had The General filmed in my state.

The Buster Keaton mural in Cottage Grove, OR

Advertisement

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s