"Buster left a lasting imprint on the community."
August 3, 2020 6:35 PM   Subscribe

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 (37 comments total) 44 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, 2020 [8 favorites]


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, 2020 [1 favorite]


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, 2020 [19 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, 2020 [8 favorites]


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, 2020 [8 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, 2020 [14 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, 2020 [3 favorites]


(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, 2020 [10 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, 2020 [7 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, 2020 [4 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, 2020 [3 favorites]


My movie blog is how I discovered Buster Keaton in general, and I fell hard. But I had a really hard time with this film - largely because through a perverse quirk of timing, I was watching it about three days after the Charlottesville riots, and to go from watching right wing dudes chanting "Blood and Soil" while waving the Stars and Bars to watching Buster Keaton wave it just...it felt like a betrayal.

Intellectually I understand the mindset under which Keaton was working. Emotionally, I just couldn't meet him there.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:16 AM on August 4, 2020 [11 favorites]


See, this kind of discussion is what causes legit outrage on MetaTalk. We have people of color telling us that it's offensive for white folks to gloss over history. And here we have some people arguing that it doesn't matter how the South was portrayed here. Can we please remember that this was a country entirely created to defend enslavement? They should never get to be the good guys, any more than Nazis should. No one should be impartial about them or get to use them just as background scenery. And we shouldn't fool ourselves that a thing is "we're the baddies" when clearly it's not.

Again, I think it's inevitable to have problematic faves. But we have to admit to it and not wallpaper over the problematic parts. Hollywood was born in the same era a lot of these monuments were being put up, and movies made good bank off the false myths of the South. This pain is not confined to the past, and we should recognize it when we talk about things like this movie.
posted by rikschell at 4:41 AM on August 4, 2020 [46 favorites]


Kevin Brownlow in The Parade's Gone By, via Edward McPherson's Keaton book:

The final turn: to tell the tale from the Southern point of view. To vilify the South would be to pick on the losers; Buster thought audiences would resent it.

Walter Kerr, in The Silent Clowns:

And the Civil War, of course, had been traumatic for North and South alike: in the martyrdom of Lincoln on the one hand, in the loss of a way of life on the other. The power of legend lay on the side of the South: almost all successful plays, novels, and films have cast their sympathies there, acting on an intuition Keaton shared. "It's awful hard," he told Herbert Feinstein, "to make heroes out of the Northerners." It was not the dream that had survived but the dream that had vanished that lingered on as myth. The old South was Troy.

I love Buster (and Kerr), but that is some vile, uncut Lost Cause bullshit. There's no getting around it. Some writers try to protect Keaton by rationalizing it, like the two above, and others just avoid mentioning it. But it's there.

There isn't a lot of comparable material in Keaton's work, but it's not totally absent either. I was in an audience for a double bill of Sherlock Jr. and Seven Chances some time ago, and both films were killing until an extremely racist joke came out of nowhere. The humor was based on how "funny" it was that Buster's character in Seven Chances, desperate to get married by a deadline, almost inadvertently proposed to a Black woman. And then recoiled in horror when he saw who she was. The whole joke was that she was Black.

You could sense the film assuming your agreement with the premise of the joke, and it felt awful. The film kept moving but the audience didn't.
posted by chimpsonfilm at 8:08 AM on August 4, 2020 [12 favorites]


Ooh, I had a problem with that moment in Seven Chances as well.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:59 AM on August 4, 2020 [1 favorite]


Hey, I wrote that. One of the funnest pieces I’ve worked on in a while. I always thought it would make a great movie.
posted by gottabefunky at 9:20 AM on August 4, 2020 [6 favorites]


I find it amazing how it still holds up as a work of comic/action filmmaking 94 years later. My 7-year-old loved it.

Earlier this year they showed it in a theater (remember those?) here in Portland. Even better on the big screen with live music accompaniment.
posted by gottabefunky at 9:23 AM on August 4, 2020


They should never get to be the good guys, any more than Nazis should.

Yeah that's a good point. I regret my use of "whatever" too. I shouldn't have been so dismissive.

I don't believe as a matter of principle that anyone exists whose story can't be told but it's true that anybody's story can be set in the proper context both to acknowledge their humanity and the humanity of those they've harmed.
posted by klanawa at 10:14 AM on August 4, 2020 [1 favorite]


I think this film has been on TCM, but I haven't watched it all the way through, so I can't discuss the movie itself.

But if you want to discuss problematic behavior, let's also reflect on what Keaton put his co-star through, per this article. She literally suffered physical abuse during stunts.

The article also did bother me in depicting racism of the time dismissed so casually, for instance in explaining why they didn't shoot it in the South:

The General itself was on display in Chattanooga, Tennessee, but emotions in the South were still too raw to put up with the production of a comedy set during the war, which had ended 61 years earlier.

Aw, the Klan's fee-fees might be hurt, even by a movie that was sympathetic to their side?

I don't know what we do about problematic art or creators. I am old enough to remember when so many attitudess that are at least challenged now, were just the norm. Not only racism, but homophobia and misogyny.

So, even as I'm someone who's been affected by these terrible attitudes/ policies, another part of me can appreciate art from some people who were quite awful.

As a young classical musician, I wrestled with what we do about Wagner's anti-Semitism or Tchaikovsky's odd relationship with a too-young servant.

Let alone, in the 20th/21st centuries, Michael Jackson, whose music was the heartbeat of a country. Or the still living Polanski, whose films include disturbing but brilliant pieces like "Chinatown" or "Rosemary's Baby."

No I don't have the answers. For me, I approached it on a piece by piece basis. Is there enough in the art itself that still makes me want to study it.
posted by NorthernLite at 10:51 AM on August 4, 2020 [2 favorites]


1926 was just about the peak of the Second Klan.
posted by rhizome at 11:04 AM on August 4, 2020 [4 favorites]


"...something about hoboes starring Lee Marvin and Ernest something about hoboes starring Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine..."

That's Emperor of the North Pole (1973; IMDB).
posted by doctornemo at 11:38 AM on August 4, 2020 [5 favorites]


We watched this again a few months ago and I have to admit being distracted by the very Poe name of Annabelle Lee.
posted by doctornemo at 12:11 PM on August 4, 2020


interesting, since the post was about a filmed train wreck with plot coming to the forefront, a few folks and the article mention that the train was in Marietta,
the first town burned by Sherman. Also, near by, Stone mountain, the rebirth of the Klan and site of the Confederate memorial.
interesting that "Though DeKalb County voted against secession from the United States, it was not spared the devastation of the Civil War. Stone Mountain Village went physically unscathed until..." and this is were 1926 could play-in.
The US Mint issued a 1925 Commemorative silver US half dollar, bearing the words "Stone Mountain", as a fundraiser for the monument.This issue, which required the approval of both the 1926 Congress and President Calvin Coolidge, was the largest issue of commemorative coins by the U.S. government up to that time."

that thing was finished in 1970.

oh, I always thought Lee Marvin should have cast as captain in Ice Station' The rewrite of Marvin watching borgine in the control room would be precious.
EB: " it looks so benevolent"
Marvin: " yeah, I could arrange a tour."
posted by clavdivs at 1:40 PM on August 4, 2020


To vilify the South would be to pick on the losers; Buster thought audiences would resent it.

This is particularly telling in light of how many WWII movies Hollywood has decided to make since, the vast majority of which are stories about American protagonists defeating Axis Power antagonists, with no shortage of gloating over the defeated villains.
posted by agentofselection at 1:44 PM on August 4, 2020 [2 favorites]


This is particularly telling in light of how many WWII movies Hollywood has decided to make since, the vast majority of which are stories about American protagonists defeating Axis Power antagonists, with no shortage of gloating over the defeated villains.

The defeated villains of WWII were foreigners. It's obviously wrong that the Confederacy's sympathizers were able to paint it after the fact as the scrappy underdog, and somehow more patriotic than the side that didn't literally betray the United States (and enslave its countrymen) but it's not an incorrect observation that this is what they were able to do for a long time.
posted by atoxyl at 3:03 PM on August 4, 2020 [1 favorite]


So, let's watch The Great Locomotive Chase, which is based on the same history but has Union heroes. (Fess Parker as Cap't Andrews.)
posted by CCBC at 3:21 PM on August 4, 2020 [1 favorite]


oh, The Train Job from 'Firefly'.
posted by clavdivs at 3:41 PM on August 4, 2020


Oh, good! A thread about one of my favorite classic movie comedies of all time ... (reads linked article) ... and an article with more detail than I've ever seen about the making of it ... (starts reading this thread) ... what the ...

There are people here with strong opinions about this movie who I am convinced have not actually watched it. That's the only way I can make sense of their comments.

The General is not about glorifying the Confederacy or the South. (Keaton actually had permission to use the real General locomotive and a branch line to film in Tennessee ... until the railroad found out it was going to be a comedy.) The protagonist is a guy trying to impress his girl and rescue his beloved locomotive in the face of overwhelming odds. I don't recall any attempts at jokes involving race, unlike the Seven Chances example mentioned, or anyone depicted as a slave. Keaton was simply trying to make a thrilling comedy nearly a century ago.

If you're compiling a ranked list of "problematic art," that's gonna be one long list before this movie shows up.

On the other hand, when compiling a list of the 100 Greatest American Films of All Time in 2007, the American Film Institute voted it number 18.

The article was great, Lexica. Thanks for posting it; I would never have seen it otherwise.
posted by pmurray63 at 8:21 PM on August 4, 2020 [3 favorites]


The casual acceptance of the ‘Johnny Reb’ character as sympathetic is the issue: and really it’s a kind of fascinating one - because it’s fucked yet pop culture made it true. There is a great talk that I can’t find now about “How the south won the peace.” And it’s sadly very true and Keaton’s viewpoint here is very much illustrative if that.

It was all fucking propaganda, brilliant, manipulative Psy-ops. I love the movie’s stunts and action but the good ‘ole Dixie shit was ... shit. If you don’t think it’s shit to calories a culture that enslaved its fellow man, think about that a little - think also about where that attitude comes from. (For me is was definitely imparted through pop culture. It’s worth thinking about Leni Riefenstahl in this light as well - (and the whole movie-making sub-plot of “Inglorious Basterds”) - they (the Nazis) wanted to make a pop culture that normalized their (abhorrent, grotesque) beliefs.)
posted by From Bklyn at 12:59 AM on August 5, 2020 [1 favorite]


(commenting on a phone is... not optimal.)

"Valorize," as in "...it's shit to valorize a culture that enslaved its fellow man..."

not 'calories'
posted by From Bklyn at 3:25 AM on August 5, 2020 [1 favorite]


The General is not about glorifying the Confederacy or the South. (Keaton actually had permission to use the real General locomotive and a branch line to film in Tennessee ... until the railroad found out it was going to be a comedy.) The protagonist is a guy trying to impress his girl and rescue his beloved locomotive in the face of overwhelming odds. I don't recall any attempts at jokes involving race, unlike the Seven Chances example mentioned, or anyone depicted as a slave. Keaton was simply trying to make a thrilling comedy nearly a century ago.

Yes, but he made this thrilling comedy in which the good guys - the guys you were supposed to root for and feel sympathetic towards - were Confederate soldiers.

Look at it this way. Suppose that someone came up with a feel-good comedy in which the main characters were KKK members. Or Taliban members. Hell, you could update the basic plot of The General with that last one - there's some sad-sack dude in Afghanistan who's mad about the US being there, and he wants to join some kind of guerrilla force against the US but the Taliban tells him that they need him on the home front so he's all bummed, but he comes up with some wacky scheme to blow up a US cargo plane or some supply route and everyone hails him as a hero. Would you still be comfortable with that?

There are people here with strong opinions about this movie who I am convinced have not actually watched it. That's the only way I can make sense of their comments.

I watched it, alright. Did you?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:52 AM on August 5, 2020 [5 favorites]


Works that are problematic because of overt racism are starting to just get the axe, not getting widespread distribution. But works can be problematic because of structural racism too. It’s bad enough that Hollywood had so little room for nonwhite participants, we should always remark on that. But we do need to remark on the lens through which a comedy views human rights. In this case that lens doesn’t really affect the humor of the various bits Keaton gives us, but it may affect how we see the piece as a whole.

Sometimes I think that defending racist stuff is the sum total of white culture. It drives our whirlwind of microaggressions and takes time and attention to unlearn. We’ve been raised to get defensive about it, but if we want this site to be welcoming, we have to consider broader points of view. It’s always worth looking at a beloved work through someone else’s eyes, even if it results in some tarnishing of the work.
posted by rikschell at 4:54 AM on August 5, 2020 [3 favorites]


It's available on both Prime Video and Netflix, if you have either of those services.
posted by hippybear at 9:39 PM on August 3

It also streams free on youtube. Here is a search on "buster keaton the general" on duckduckgo returning many hits, many streams, most of them easily downloaded if you've got a browser add-on for that.
posted by dancestoblue at 6:54 AM on August 5, 2020


Cottage Grove's other role in cinematic history is that the parade scene in Animal House was filmed there.
posted by neuron at 7:44 AM on August 5, 2020 [2 favorites]


So, The General is amazing, Keaton is amazing, if you haven't seen it you should watch it.

But it's indisputable that there is a bunch of Lost Cause stuff in a bunch of his movies and it's noticeable as a viewer today. I don't know whether this is motivated by a specific personal conviction on Keaton's part so much as a background culture in the theater/entertainment world of that time that adopted the Lost Cause tropes for melodrama reasons, but it is widespread in his movies and we see the harm still being done by that ideology today. (Just watched Spite Marriage the other night, in which Buster is in love with an actress playing a southern belle in a Lost Cause stage play.) It's a good thing to warn people about with The General because the movie otherwise holds up so well, and this framing aspect is so WTF. But it is interesting to have a direct window to the fictional retconning and enshrining of the Lost Cause ideology/symbology in the early 20th century, and worth thinking about how those views in more subtle forms are still shaping people's actions today. (And related, what theatrical tropes commonly used today seem merely-incidental to their users but are building/enshrining worldviews in this kind of way.)

Thanks for posting this article, I've always wanted to know more about the filming of this scene.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:56 AM on August 5, 2020 [7 favorites]


LobsterMitten has it right.

I'm a Keaton extremist -- I've watched the dregs of the MGM era multiple times, let alone the good stuff -- and I loved The General. Still do. (Though if I were introducing someone to Keaton, I'd start with "One Week", then a couple other shorts, building to a crescendo with the glorious "Cops".)

But you're not doing Keaton any favors if you pretend that Lost Cause crap isn't there or it doesn't matter, and you're not helping to create a fan by leaving them to stumble across it themselves, by surprise.
posted by chimpsonfilm at 8:51 AM on August 5, 2020 [3 favorites]


Hell, you could update the basic plot of The General with that last one - there's some sad-sack dude in Afghanistan who's mad about the US being there, and he wants to join some kind of guerrilla force against the US but the Taliban tells him that they need him on the home front so he's all bummed, but he comes up with some wacky scheme to blow up a US cargo plane or some supply route and everyone hails him as a hero.

Maybe Four Lions without the rejection angle, where part of the update would be that the protagonist knows they don't need to "join" because everybody's life is a home front, so to speak.
posted by rhizome at 11:23 AM on August 5, 2020


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