A Discussion About The General

This weekend marks the end of the tour & so, effectively, the end proper of Slapstick 2012. (Sad face emoticon). Anyway, to mark the final two screeings of The General we thought we’d repost a piece that we featured on our old website several years ago on the offchance that some of you didn’t read it there. The piece comes with thanks to MK2 who allowed us to use their text in part.

Firstly though, a quick plug for the two remaining dates of the tour, both of which have Stephen Horne as live musical accompaniment & the print is Lobster:

24/03/12 7:30PM The Regent, Christchurch 01202 499199
25/03/12 3:00PM Turner Sims Theatre, Southhampton 023 8059 5151

And so to the article itself:

Today The General has an unassailable reputation not just as one of the greatest comedies ever made, but as one of the most enduring works of art of the 20th century.

It was not always so. When the film came out in 1926 Variety wrote that it was “far from funny”; Life Magazine thought some of its gags “in gruesomely bad taste” and the New York Times considered it “by no means as good as Mr Keaton’s previous efforts”. The public of the time felt much the same – the film, which had cost a then-massive $415,232, was a financial disaster for United Artists.

No doubt audiences of 1926 were puzzled by a comedy inspired by a real-life historic event that was heroic, but in its outcome grim. Keaton based his film on a book of 1863, Daring and Suffering: A History of the Great Railway Adventure, by William Pittenger (1840-1904). Pittenger was one of a party of twenty-four men led by a professional spy, James J.Andrews, who made their way from Tennessee into Atlanta, disguised as civilians, to seize a train (drawn by the locomotive “The General”) while its passengers were at breakfast. Their plan was to run the train north to Chattanooga where they would join up with Union troops, burning bridges and cutting communications along the route.

They were foiled by the train’s conductor, William A.Fuller, who set off in pursuit, at first on foot, then on a pole-car, and finally in a succession of three locomotives. The conspirators were within a few miles of their destination when Fuller, on “The Texas,” overtook them and forced them to abandon their prize. Most of the party were apprehended and several were executed.

Keaton followed the incidents of the original story, but changed the focus of sympathy from the Northerners to the lone engineer of “The General” (renamed Johnnie Grey) determined to retrieve both his beloved locomotive and his estranged fiancée, seized by the hijackers. (When Disney adapted Pittenger’s book as The Great Locomotive Chase in 1956, the Northerners were once again the heroes, though the film-makers hedged their bets by casting loveable Jeff Hunter as Fuller).

The story gave Keaton the weight of dramatic motive that he always liked in his plots, and also an incomparable toy: “Well, the moment you give me a locomotive and things like that to play with, as a rule 1 find some way of getting laughs out of it.” The General is an exhaustive anthology of railroad gags.

He at first intended to shoot THE GENERAL in the original locations, between Atlanta and Georgia, but decided that Oregon looked more authentic. In Oregon, too, he could still find narrow-gauge tracks of the kind used in the Civil War period, now serving the timber mills, and winding picturesquely around valleys, mountains and lakes. Keaton asked the Tennessee authorities to loan him the real “General” locomotive, which was on display in Chattanooga railroad station, but he was refused. Undeterred, he made-over three aged locomotives still in use on the lumber camps, to look like real period engines.

The most astonishing quality of the film is its almost documentary picture of the Civil War. Nothing seems out of period. Everything has the look of the classic Civil War photographs of Matthew Brady – the landscapes, the buildings, the railroad and its rolling stock, the costumes, every detail. Even Keaton’s own face, as the great American critic James Agee pointed out, looks like a portrait by Matthew Brady. Keaton’s vision of the Civil War is more believable even than The Birth of a Nation or Gone with the Wind. When anyone asked him how this came about, Keaton would say, “Well, they went to a novel for their story. We went to history”.

It went deeper than this. Keaton was the most truthful of comedians. The psychology of his characters was observed with the meticulous truth of a great novelist. He always insisted that his gags, however wild and extravagant, must still be possible – and they were, because however astonishing the physical feats achieved by Keaton’s heroes, he was actually performing them before the camera, himself. And he had just the same concern for truth when it came to recreating another place or period. The dominant documentary quality of the story gives a unique quality to Keaton’s performance. His character never appears to be trying to be funny or to do funny things. Rather he is totally concentrated on his life-or-death mission. The comedy is generated by the mishaps which assault him, and by the ingenuity of his solutions to problems and hazards.

His film craft is nowhere seen at a higher level than in THE GENERAL. Even today the astonishing travelling shots, made from a train travelling on tracks parallel to the film locomotive, are the envy of any film maker.

For his armies he engaged 500 men from the Oregon State Guard – as the Southerners they wore grey uniforms and marched from left to right and as the Northerners they adopted dark blue uniforms and marched the other way. Participants recalled the Rock River battle – covered by six cameras – as an alarmingly realistic engagement. At least nine men were injured, several almost drowned, and Keaton himself was knocked out by the force of an explosion. The explosives set off a forest fire, which caused location production to be halted for several weeks until rain had cleared away the effects of the smoke.

The most astonishing scene in the film is the collapsing bridge which hurls a locomotive and entire train into the water below. No models were used, and the train is said still to lie immovable in the river bed. At $42,000 this is reputed to have been the most costly shot in the entire silent cinema.

That was the measure of Keaton’s dedication to comedy. And this dedication makes him a great film maker, by any standards.

With grateful acknowledgement for part of the content of this article to MK2.

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  1. #1 by James Harrison on March 22, 2012 - 2:11 pm

    Although I do love the General, I still think Sherlock Jr (1924) is Keaton’s masterpiece… action all the way…

  2. #2 by Penfold on March 23, 2012 - 7:37 pm

    Perhaps I’ve seen it too often and it’s become overfamiliar……my favourite Keaton feature has to be Steamboat Bill Jr. though The Cameraman is close….

  3. #3 by Ayse on March 25, 2012 - 9:49 pm

    I think if your not familiar with Keatons work and this film is your introduction then you may struggle. I think if I had seen Sherlock junior, seven chances or the cameraman first then I may have warmed to him quicker. This is why I think sometimes Chaplin is easier to warm to a your first intro to silent films, the gags in many places are possibly not so long? I dunno gang you tell me your opinion. I’m not getting into the Chaplin / Keaton debate…..its a stupid one to start, but I’m glad I gave Keaton another chance, his Arbuckle stuff is gold!!!

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