Richard J. Leskosky: Keaton turned history into comedy
In general, comedy films do not deal with specific historical events. Even those set in different historical periods find their humor in the general ambience of the period rather than in an actual individual occurrence. The only major exception, however, is also one of the cinema's genuine classics — Buster Keaton's 1926 masterpiece, "The General," which screens in the News-Gazette Film Series at the Virginia Theatre in downtown Champaign at 1 and 7 p.m. Saturday.
On April 12, 1861 (exactly one year after the Civil War began), Union spies stole the General, a Western & Atlantic Railroad locomotive, during its meal stop in Big Shanty, Ga., and headed north.
They cut telegraph wires and wrecked tracks (and intended to destroy bridges as well) to disrupt Confederate supply lines and communications between Atlanta and Chattanooga, which the Union forces were then attacking.
The General's conductor, William Allen Fuller, and two other men pursued the hijacked train on foot and then by handcar until Fuller commandeered the locomotive Yonah and then, after a patch of ruined track, the Texas, a southbound locomotive. The General ran out of fuel just 18 miles from Chattanooga, and all the spies were eventually captured.
Buster Keaton loved reading railroad history and working with large real-world props (ships, trains), so William Pittenger's 1863 memoir of the chase was a natural for him to adapt for the screen. Keaton did extensive research for his period films to make them look as realistic as possible. Here, he even tried to rent the real General, then on display in the Chattanooga station, but the owners refused to let it appear in a comedy.
Keaton also had hoped to shoot along the actual route of the original chase but wound up filming in Oregon, where he could get the locomotives and period look he wanted. He had the locomotives retrofitted to look like those used in the chase and had a Georgia town built to match the engravings in Pittenger's book.
In the film, Keaton plays Johnnie Gray, the engineer on the General. When war breaks out, he tries to enlist in the Confederate army because his girlfriend, Annabelle (Marion Mack), expects it after her father and brother rush to join up. The recruiters repeatedly reject Johnnie, though, because he is more valuable to the Confederacy as an engineer. Unfortunately, they don't explain that to him or anyone else, so Annabelle rejects him as well, thinking him a coward.
When the Union spies steal the General, they also unintentionally kidnap Annabelle. And when Johnnie goes in pursuit of his true love — his locomotive — behind Union lines, he coincidentally rescues Annabelle. That's not the end of the story, however.
You may have noted in the description of the historic chase that when pursuing conductor Fuller commandeered the Texas, it was southbound while the General was heading north. Fuller actually pursued the General with the Texas running backward.
Keaton passed up that obviously comic arrangement and instead rewound the whole chase in reverse. Once Johnnie rescues Annabelle and retrieves the General, they dash back toward the Southern lines, with Northern agents and soldiers pursuing in two other trains. And this time it's Johnnie and Annabelle tearing up tracks and creating other obstacles for pursuers.
"The General" presents a truly remarkable demonstration of Keaton's superb comic timing, his ability to make co-stars of inanimate objects (his locomotive, a massive cannon) and his finesse in directing large masses of extras (the impressive Union and Confederate troop movements that provide backdrops for the locomotive chase and the battle scene that climaxes the film).
He's also quite adept at subtle visual comedy — whenever Johnnie strikes a heroic pose, it's immediately undercut by some minor mishap.
Keaton's physical gags are all the more impressive because it's obviously Buster himself interacting with all those many tons of rolling steel to get a laugh, as when he clears the track of debris immediately in front of his moving locomotive while perched precariously on its cow-catcher.
His most life-threatening stunt, however, doesn't look it. When Annabelle rejects Johnnie, he sits dejectedly on the coupler rod of the General and then another engineer starts it up and drives it into a large shed with Johnnie still sitting on the rod. A gag later in the film shows how violently a locomotive's wheels could spin when starting up under the wrong conditions — a not unusual occurrence. If that had happened when Keaton was sitting on the rod, it would likely have killed him.
Keaton co-wrote and co-directed the film with Clyde Bruckman (who co-wrote several of his other features with him) and co-produced it with Joseph M. Schenck. So he had nearly complete control over the film, and the studio gave him a $400,000 budget to work with. The scale of the production, the complicated stunts, the weather and a forest fire or two caused by the production nearly doubled that.
The most expensive scene shot for any silent film — a locomotive trying to cross a burning bridge only to plunge into the river below — does not include Keaton, however. Nor does the following reaction shot. Buster was famous for his deadpan reactions — liberally on display here — but in this case, it's another Keaton (his father, Joe, as the Union general who ordered the crossing) who gets one of the funniest reaction shots ever filmed.
"The General" did not make back its production costs when first released, and critics complained it was slow and unfunny.
It certainly can be dark — several gags involve soldiers dying. (In 1926, the real incident would still have been in the living memory of some viewers, so that may have been a factor as well.) Subsequently, though, "The General" has come to be regarded not only as a great comedy but as one of the greatest films ever.
National Women's History Month note: Keaton's human co-star, Marion Mack, was a former Mack Sennett "bathing beauty" in Keystone Komedies. She also scripted and starred in the semi-autobiographical feature, "Mary of the Movies." While the arduous six-month location filming of "The General" led her to give up acting, she continued writing screenplays (usually uncredited) for short films, including the 1938 "Streamlined Swing" directed by Keaton (and involving a railroad dining car).
Richard J. Leskosky taught media and cinema studies at the University of Illinois and has reviewed films for more than 30 years. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.