Buster Keaton in The General

As the movies matured from their infant storytelling days of the turn of the century, producers began to find formulas that were successful. One of the most popular was the comedy, an extension of the vaudevillian style of entertainment that produced so many of the screen's great comedians. Comedies dominated the film world throughout the silent days with names such as Chaplin, Laurel, Langdon, Roach, Sennett, and Arbuckle.

From this group of comedian/filmmakers came a young man named Buster Keaton. Buster grew up in show business and performed with his parents in their vaudeville act when he was only three years old. In their skits, Buster performed many acrobatic stunts so that he was able to learn to use his body with agility and grace. At one time during his young career, his father used Buster as a human mop and literally mopped the stage with him.

Buster traveled to Hollywood in 1916 and struck up an acquaintance with Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, in whose films he soon began working. By 1920 he wanted to branch out on his own and he became a very successful director as well as a star of his own comedy shorts. He developed a character in his films that was a very determined individual, never overwhelmed by the situations he got himself into, no matter how exotic they were. He became well known for his hair-raising stunts, which often employed the use of such mechanical devices as boats, automobiles, and locomotives.

A railroad engineer of the 1860's was a revered member of the community, and every boy in town wanted to emulate him. Johnnie Gray prepares to oil and polish his beloved General under the watchful eyes of this small inspection committee.

Keaton actually had to learn how to operate these ancient locomotives, and he considered them a great comedy prop.

Buster's success with short films led him into features. In 1924, he made The Navigator, his biggest money-maker. In 1926, he signed a deal with United Artists and began to look around for another story idea. His partner and co-writer, Clyde Bruckman, suggested an idea about filming a picture based on the Andrews Raid from the Civil War.

The raid was recorded for posterity by one of the survivors, William Pittenger, when he wrote the book Daring and Suffering: A History of the Great Railway Adventure. Buster's decision to film this work and turn it into a comedy resulted in what many film historians consider the last of the silent era's great comedies, The General.

Buster's first order of business was to change the sympathies of the story. Because the raid was not considered a complete success, Buster felt the ending had to be changed to better suit a comedy. He structured the film around the locomotive's fictional engineer, Johnnie Gray, so that the audience would sympathize with him upon the loss of his locomotive. As Buster went on to explain, "You can always make a villains out of the Northerners, but you cannot make a villain out of the South. You can't do that with a motion picture audience...The South lost the war anyhow, so the audience resents it...When the story ended, the South was winning...All this took place in 1862, and the South lost in 1864."

Buster's General was built in 1886 and was in lumber hauling operations when he hired it to portray its famous ancestor. Changes in the locomotive prior to filming included the addition of the big box headlight, a backdated whistle, a false plate between the drive wheels to hide the modern air brakes, and the appropriate name boards.

After assembling a story outline (in the silent days comedians didn't film from scripts, they used outlines and built comedic situations as they were filming), Buster needed a location and Civil War period American-style locomotives. Buster wanted authenticity and arranged with the Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis railway for the loan of the General as well as some trackage on a branch line near Cowan, Tennessee, and portions of the main line between Atlanta and Chattanooga. Later, when Buster and his staff arrived in Chattanooga to get started on the movie, he indicated during an interview that he was a comedian and the film would be shot as a comedy. This did not sit well with the Confederate Veterans of the South, and soon the pressure became so intense that the NC& St. L withdrew its permission to use the General and Buster went west.

He found that what he was looking for outside Cottage Grove, Oregon. It was called the Oregon, Pacific & Eastern Railroad, a small lumber railroad, that had everything he needed: beautiful scenery, weed-covered trackage, covered bridges, rivers, and a very rustic look. In its stable of motive power the OP&E also had two vintage 4-4-0 American-style locomotives, which matched the design of the original Civil War locomotives. Buster was also able to acquire another American locomotive from a nearby lumber railroad. That gave him a total of three for his picture. Since all three were built after the Civil War, the movie crew backdated the locomotives to match those of the period for the story. A complete train was constructed to go along with the locomotives including passenger cars and box cars. The train was completely functional, too. Every morning the entire film crew would leave the Cottage Grove Hotel and board the train for the hour-long ride out to location, and every evening ride it back.

The other locomotive star of The General was the Texas, here resting between scenes. Purchased as a backup, this particular locomotive, built in 1892, was destined to cross the burning bridge at the end of the film, but upon inspection, it was discovered that it was in better condition than the locomotive originally assigned to play the Texas. The two locomotives were then switched, and this one ended its days hauling lumber through the pine forests of Oregon.

The movie begins with the Western and Atlantic Flyer, pulled by the General, steaming into Marietta , Georgia. It is established at this point that its engineer, Johnnie Gray, has two loves in his life: the General and his girl, Annabelle Lee.

Upon arrival he goes to pay a call on her and presents her with a photograph of himself with his locomotive displayed very prominently in the background.

During the visit, news comes that the South has fired upon Fort Sumter and immediately Annabelle's father and brother leave for the enlistment office. However, Johnnie isn't interested until he realizes that Annabelle expects him to go and become a soldier. With a gallant flourish, he leaves for the enlistment office.

Upon hearing the news that Fort Sumter has been fired upon, Johnnie rushes to the enlistment office, only to be rejected by the army.

The set for this scene was built in Cottage Grove, Oregon, and was complete to the smallest detail but one...it had no roof. The film stock used in pictures at the time of The General required much light for exposure, and many of the interiors were actually exteriors, relying on the sun to provide illumination.

Upon arrival, Johnnie jumps to the front of the line only to be told the army can't use him. What he isn't told is that he is more valuable to the South as an engineer. He tries several times to enlist, but is finally kicked out the back door without discovering the reason for his rejection.

He slowly walks to the front of the building, where Annabelle's father and brother are waiting to go inside. Not knowing that Johnnie has already attempted to enlist, they urge him to join them in line. Sadly, he shakes his head and walks off.

Annabelle, upon learning from them that Johnnie didn't enlist tells him that she does not want to speak to him again until he is in uniform. Feeling totally rejected, Johnnie goes to his only love, the General. In one of the most effective gags in the film, he sits forlornly on the drive rod – sad, dejected, lonely – oblivious to everything. As he sits motionless, a hogger enter the cab and steams the General into the engine house, with Johnnie rising up and down on the side rod all the way inside!

Upon learning that Johnnie did not enlist, a stern-faced Annabelle confronts him about his cowardice. Neither of them realize that Johnnie is far more valuable to the South as an engineer than a soldier.

A year later, in a Yankee encampment outside Chattanooga, Union General Thatcher meets with his chief spy, Captain Anderson. Anderson is proposing to steal a train on the Western & Atlantic Railroad and steam north with it, tearing up rails and burning bridges all the way to Chattanooga and disrupting the Confederate supply line to the city.

On the day of the raid, Anderson and twenty volunteers board Johnnie's train in Marietta. Also boarding the train is Annabelle, who is on her way to visit her wounded father. Although she sees Johnnie at the depot prior to departure, she does not speak to him.

When the train pulls into Big Shanty for breakfast, all the passengers and crew disembark to eat. Anderson and his men uncouple the passenger cars, board the General and its boxcars, and kidnap Annabelle who has returned to the train and spotted them.

Johnnie, seeing his locomotive steam away down the track, begins to chase it on foot. Although the raiders gain a large lead at first, they lose time tearing up trackage. Johnnie continues on foot for several miles until he spies a handcar. He continues the pursuit on the car until he hits a section of missing rail and is derailed. He tries an old wooden bicycle that proves inadequate. Finally, he comes across another locomotive, the Texas, and he continues the pursuit.

The camera crew, mounted atop the boxcar, prepares to film the Texas as Johnnie continues the pursuit of his stolen General. During the original chase in 1862, the Texas operated in reverse, and both locomotives at one time or another reached the then unheard of speed of 60 miles an hour!

Johnnie comes across a flatcar with a mortar mounted on it. He couples it behind the Texas and begins to gain ground on the raiders. In one of the great scenes of film comedy, Johnnie tries to fire the mortar in an effort to stop the raiders who are now just a short distance ahead. Using too little powder for his first shot, the mortar fires the cannonball into the cab of the Texas, landing at Johnnie's feet. Surprised, he rolls it out of the cab and onto the roadbed, then goes back to the mortar. As he prepares to load it, the first cannonball explodes on the roadbed behind him. Realizing that he needs more powder, Johnnie uses a whole canister, loads the cannonball, and lights the fuse. He quickly moves to the Texas, but his foot becomes tangled in the coupler between the flatcar and locomotive. He shakes it off, allowing the coupler to fall below the flatcar's wheels, uncoupling it from the locomotive. The vibration from the dragging coupler causes the mortar to slowly tilt downward, aiming right for Johnnie! With the fuse getting shorter and shorter, Johnnie can only think of getting away. Climbing up the back of the tender, his foot becomes tangled with a chain as the mortar takes deadly aim. As he struggles with it, the fuse gets shorter and shorter. He gets loose, climbs over the woodpile in the tender, and, in desperation, throws a piece of wood at the mortar, hitting it squarely on the front (an excellent shot, considering that he is balancing himself on a moving locomotive, and the mortar is coasting along behind him thirty feet away). He continues to scramble along the Texas, finding refuge by cowering on the cowcatcher. Ahead, across a small valley, steams the General and the raiders. The Texas steams around a curve, and as the flatcar coasts behind it into the curve, the mortar fires - the shot just narrowly missing the last boxcar in the raiders' train.

Busily hurrying himself with the task of providing the Texas with firewood, Johnnie is not aware of the danger as he crosses the lines into Union territory.

In addition to the assistance of the Oregon National Guard for the troop sequences, Buster also was able to acquire up to 125 horses for the cavalry scenes. Buster summarized his filming of the Civil War this way: "I'd put 'em in blue uniforms and bring 'em goin' from right to left, and take 'em out; then I'd put 'em in gray uniforms and bring 'em going from left to right...and fought the war."

In a posed gag shot, Buster appears to be listening for the distant booming of cannon.

The mortar sequence became on the the film's funniest moments as Johnnie attempts to aim and fire the weapon at the fleeing Union spies, but not before he, too, finds himself at the mercy of the self-thinking mortar.

The raiders now believe that they are being chased by a large number of Confederates. They try to derail the Texas by dropping anything they can find onto the rails. Even when they leave boxcars sitting on the tracks, Johnnie overcomes all obstacles with comedic determination. However the chase does continue to draw Johnnie closer to Union lines. When he realizes that he is in enemy country, he stops the Texas and jumps off, into the woods.

Lost in the woods, Johnnie spies a house that night. He enters it only to discover that it is the Union Army headquarters.

He goes inside to get food just as General Thatcher, his staff, and Captain Anderson enter. Johnnie takes refuge under a table and from that vantage point overhears their plans for an upcoming attack the next day on the Rock River Bridge. He also discovers that Annabelle has been taken prisoner and is in the house.

Johnnie unwittingly finds himself trapped in the Union headquarters of General Thather where he overhears plans for the attack against the Confederate Army at Rock River Bridge. It is also here that Johnnie finds out that Annabelle has been taken prisoner.

Playing General Thather (center) is Jim Farley; to his left is Glen Cavender as Captain Anderson, the role based on James J. Andrews, the Union spy who commanded the original 1862 Raid. The bearded Union general seated on the right is Joseph Keaton, Buster's father.

When the staff meeting ends, Johnnie sneaks out and steals a uniform. He uses it to gain access to Annabelle's room where he wakes her and leads her to safety. Annebelle is overjoyed that Johnnie has risked his life to enter enemy country to save her. Johnnie, realizing that he should hide the real reason for his trip north, accepts her gratitude, and they spend a sleepless night out in the woods.

Next morning, Johnnie wakes up to find the General and the Texas being prepared with supply trains for support of the upcoming attack. He stuffs Annabelle into a sack to get her on board then climbs into the cab of the General and starts it down the track. The Union commander orders the Texas to follow with a third train bringing up the rear.

Having rescued Annabelle and commandeered the General, Johnnie heads for Southern lines to warn the Confederate Army of the upcoming attack.

A bit of business that was improvised on the set had to do with the knotted piece of wood Buster is holding. The General is starving for fuel, and Annabelle (who is not too bright) starts picking up scraps of wood from the tender to feed the fire. She picks up the piece with the knothole and, realizing that such wood is no good for anything, promptly throws it out of the cab, much to Johnnie's chagrin.

At the time of filming, a member of the crew had suggested it to Marion Mack, so she tried it. But she added to the gag with something of her own; her character then finds a smaller piece and throws that in the firebox. Buster, then adds to the gag by finding an even smaller piece and hands it to Annabelle to see if she is dumb enough to throw that in. She does, and Buster promptly pretends to choke her. The scene ends as he gives her a small kiss and goes back to running the engine.

Marion Mack said once that the kiss was Buster's way of thanking her for coming up with the gag.

The chase is now on again, only in reverse. Johnnie tries everything he can to stop the pursuing Yankees, all with great humorous consequences.

Upon arrival at the Rock River Bridge, Johnnie sets it afire so that the Yankees cannot cross it. He then steams into the local town and alerts the Confederate garrison stationed there of the impending attack. They rally to the colors and take position around the bridge.

Balanced precariously upon the cowcatcher of the Texas, Buster Keaton prepares to fend off disaster as he continues pursuit of the General.

In another memorable scene from this classic picture, Buster is preparing to throw the railroad tie and dislodge another tie lying across the rails. His timing has to be perfect; if not, the tie lying across his path could spell trouble for both him and the coasting Texas.

The Union Army arrives with the trains. The commander looks over the burning bridge and decides that it is not damaged enough to stop them. With steely determination, he orders the Texas across while the infantry fords the river in support. With a hiss of steam and a belch of smoke, the Texas starts across, and upon reaching the midpoint, the bridge begins to sag, then weaken, and finally collapses, sending the helpless Texas into the river, fifty feet below.

The Texas crashes into Oregon's Row River for Hollywood's cameras.

This was the most complicated and expensive shot in the whole film, and Buster shot it with at least three different cameras to be sure he got it right.

The bridge was carefully prepared by removing the two center bents, which allowed the bridge to bend in the middle. In addition, there were cables attached to release points that removed pins at the right moment to be assured the bridge would collapse on cue.

The attack is ordered to continue as the Confederates open fire on the infantry fording the river. With the battle at its fiercest, Johnnie mans one of the artillery cannon, and with natural inability, fires it straight into the air. The cannonball lands behind an upstream dam and explodes, sending a cascading torrent of water into the Federal troops.

The Yankees retreat, and the Confederates march home in victory.

For his bravery, Johnnie is given a commission as lieutenant, and he and Annabaelle stroll off together to be alone with the General.

Union cavalry swiftly approaches the Rock River Bridge in support of Federal infantry in the attack against the Confederates.

At the end of the The General, Johnnie wins not only Annabelle, but an officer's commission. And like any army assignment, this one requires double duty.

The Raiders Go To Hollywood | Buster Keaton in The General | Behind the Scenes of The General
Direct questions to webmaster. © 2009