The General
Well, the moment you give me a locomotive and things
like that to play with, as a rule I find some way of
getting laughs with it. Railroads are a great prop.
You can do some awful wild things with railroads.
A United Artists Production
Written and Directed by Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman
Additional Material by Al Boasberg and Charles Henry Smith
Produced by
Joseph M. Schenck
Directors of Photography
Bert “Boots” Haines and J. Devereaux “Dev” Jennings
Camera Operators
Elmer Ellsworth and Byron Houck
Assistant Camera Operator
Harry Wilde
Scenic Director
Harry “Rosie” Roselotte
Location Manager/Chief Property Man
Bert Jackson
Properties Crew
Mike Graves and others
Casting Director
Harry Barnes
Chief Draughtsman
Billy Wood
Bridge Timber Contractor
George E. Potter
Bridge Timber Crew
William Ernshaw and others
Train Work
Jack Dempster
Fred A. Lowry
Production Manager/Technical Director
Fred Gabourie
Technical Director for Battle Scenes
Glen Cavender
Chief Makeup and Wardrobe
J. K. Pitcairn
Assistant Makeup and Wardrobe
Bennie Hubbel and Fred C. Ryle
(Western Costume Company)
Lighting Effects
Denver Harmon
Business Manager
W. G. Gilmour
Construction Foreman
Frank Barnes
Construction Crew
Jack Coyle and others
Bridge and Dam Construction
H. L. Jennings
Chief Mechanic and Firefighter
Fred Wright
Munitions Foreman
Jack Little
Chief Electrician
Ed Levy
Still Photographers
Byron Houck, Dale Clawson, and William Piltz
Horses and Mules Supplied by
Dee Wright, Eugene, Oregon
Railroad Assistance
L. L. Graham and Bob Holmes, Oregon Pacific and Eastern Railway
First Aid
Dr. Axley and Dr. Frost, Cottage Grove, Oregon
Buster Keaton’s Valet and Chef
Willie Riddle
Buster Keaton’s Cook
Viola Riddle
Anderson & Middleton, under the direction of George E. Potter
Ralph Land
Christine Francis
Betty Cavender
Location Screening Facility
Arcade Theatre, Cottage Grove, Oregon
Buster Keaton
Assistant Editors
Sherman Kell and Harry Barnes
Johnnie Gray
Buster Keaton
Annabelle Lee
Marion Mack
Her Father
Charles Henry Smith
Her Brother
Frank Barnes
Captain Anderson
Glen Cavender
General Thatcher
Jim Farley
A Southern General
Frederick Vroom
A Union General
Joe Keaton
A Union General
Mike Donlin
A Union General
Tom Nawn
Jackie Hamlon
Jackie Lowe
Frank Hagney
Jimmie Bryant
Jack Dempster
Budd Fine
Ray Hanford
Al Hanson
Anthony Harvey
Ross McCutcheon
Tom Moran
Stunt Double for Tom Moran
Earl Mohan
Charles Phillips
Red Rial
Ray Thomas
Red Thompson
A Union Railroad Fireman
Ed Foster
A Union Officer
Edward Hearn
A Union General
Elgin Lessley
A Soldier
Lewis Lewyn
Union and Confederate Soldiers
Oregon State Guard (Henry Baird, Kieth Fennell, Ronald Gilstrap, “Fat” Kerr, Billy Lynn, James Walsh, John Wilson, Harold Terry, and about 500 others), under the command of Captain C. C. Cruson and Sergeant Bukowski
Jean Woodward
TECHNICAL NOTES. Some prints of The General were tinted sepia, with blue toning for the nighttime scenes. Other prints were straight black and white. It is probably unknown which version Keaton preferred. In 1987 Raymond Rohauer made a full-frame print directly from the camera negative for a British tour arranged by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill, for which Carl Davis conducted his score. This is the print we tried to get, but couldn’t, as it’s still in England. The print we have tonight was reduced from the original full-frame silent aperture to the Academy 1:1.375: aperture. Sadly, the part titles (“End of Part One,” “Part Two,” “End of Part Two,” “Part Three,” and so forth) were edited out of this copy. Apart from the special-effects shots, the film was cranked at 16 frames per second at the low end to about 19 frames per second at the high end. The original music-cue sheets instructed the projectionist to run the film preferably at about 25 frames per second, and no more slowly than 24. (Reports that the cue sheets called for a speed in excess of 32fps are not correct.) The rumors that the preview prints and the 31 December 1926 Japanese release prints were longer than later prints are probably incorrect, and were probably inspired by production stills of abandoned sequences. Two negatives were completed by the use of cameras placed side by side; one was for the U.S. release and the other for the European release. Six cameras shot the train crash, as there was no possibility of retakes. Because of a mistake in the original opening credits, in which the copyright owner is named but the year of copyright not given, the film has technically been in the public domain from the first.

JOSEPH FRANK “BUSTER” KEATON (4 October 1895–1 February 1966, lung cancer) sometimes said that The General was one of his finest movies; sometimes he said it was his finest of all. But in his autobiography, My Wonderful World of Slapstick, he mentions it in passing only three times (pp. 175, 201, and in the unpaginated illustrations).

Keaton was born in a boarding house in Piqua, Kansas, where his parents, Joseph Hallie Keaton and Myra Cutler Keaton, were touring with a medicine show. He made his debut at the age of nine months when he crawled out of the dressing room onto the stage, and he became part of the act when he was three. The young Keaton got his nickname within the first two years of his life when he fell down a flight of stairs and landed unhurt and unfazed. Legend has it that it was Harry Houdini who picked him up in wonderment and commented, “That’s some buster you took.” More recent research by the seldom-reliable Marion Meade suggests that it was actually a vaudevillian by the name of George Pardey who witnessed the fall and made the fateful comment. Father Keaton immediately thought out loud: “That would be a good name for him.” The young Keaton seems to have been the first person in history to go by such a nickname. From infancy Joe taught Buster how to take falls without getting hurt, and the rough-house act that his family specialized in, in which little Buster was used as a mop, hurled against scenery, dropped into the orchestra, and slammed against the back-stage wall, caused mirth and merriment, but also led to the Gerry Society (Gerry with a hard “g”) to institute proceedings on behalf of the seemingly abused child. Court investigations revealed that the young Buster had no bruises or scars, and that there was no evidence of abuse. Keaton, his family, friends, and fellow vaudevillians, even into their old age, all confirmed that the courts were right, and that the allegations of abuse were woefully mistaken. Buster was the star of the show, with ads reading “BUSTER and the Three Keatons,” and later “BUSTER and the Four Keatons,” and later still “BUSTER and the Five Keatons.” Despite enduring audience appeal, while touring in the Keith-Albee circuit the Keatons were never a first-tier act. They usually ranked fifth, sixth, or seventh in an eight-act show. Buster learned to sing, dance, and get by with a guitar or ukulele. He also learned magic and juggling, and was the Buff in a team called Buff & Bogany, the Lunatic Jugglers.

When Joe Keaton’s mid-life crisis induced a bout with alcoholism, and hence poor timing and great risk, the twenty-one-year-old Buster broke up the act, visited his family’s agent, Max Hart, and announced his availability. Hart scheduled him for The Passing Show of 1917, in which Keaton hoped to do a wordless sketch. But a chance encounter with his old vaudeville buddy Lou Anger led to a visit to the studio of fellow Kansan Roscoe Arbuckle. Keaton had just seen Arbuckle’s latest, The Waiter’s Ball, which had stolen a gag that the Keatons had originated and made famous, and he was not looking forward to the meeting. But to his surprise the two of them hit it off famously, and within minutes Arbuckle asked Keaton to do a turn in The Butcher Boy, which had just started filming. Before the end of the day Keaton was in love with the movies, canceled his $250-a-week Passing Show contract, and signed on with Arbuckle’s studio for $40 a week. He quickly became Arbuckle’s principal gagman, even inventing special effects. In 1920 Arbuckle won a (tragically short-lived) contract for feature films with Paramount Studios, and Keaton’s producer and future brother-in-law Joe Schenck (pronounced Skenk) gave Keaton his own studio. Keaton here made nineteen short films over the next three years, and in 1923 he was finally allowed to make features, which he had wanted to do from the first. While the shorts were filled with impossible stories and rapidly paced gags, most of his independent features were revolutionary. His less-is-more method of story telling demanded that his performers underact. Seldom in a Keaton feature do actors smile or frown or shout or cry or laugh. The feature films that Keaton made during the next five years are notable for their striking compositions and camera work, their fluid editing, their lack of sentimentality, and their absence of heroes or villains. One of Keaton’s strengths was showing how different perspectives lead to surprisingly different points of view. Sadly, most of his best features were laden with boy-gets-girl plot lines, most likely imposed by his producer’s insistence upon insuring success with a proven formula. The General showed Keaton at his most independent and uncompromising.

CLYDE A. BRUCKMAN (20 September 1894–4 January 1955, suicide) was among the most highly sought-after gag men, comedy writers, and comedy directors, but almost nothing is known about him, and nothing at all is known about his specific contributions. Film historian Steve Massa supplied a brief sketch for a film program:

Bruckman came from a newspaper background and became a writer and gagman in 1919 for Eddie Lyons & Lee Moran and Monty Banks. In 1921 he joined Keaton’s staff of ideamen and was one of his key collaborators until he began freelancing after Seven Chances (1925). Besides being an important (and sometimes uncredited) collaborator to Harold Lloyd for almost fifteen years and directing Laurel and Hardy in some of their most important early comedies (Putting Pants on Philip [1927], Battle of the Century [1927], The Finishing Touch [1928], etc.), Bruckman also worked with Mack Sennett, Hal Roach, Max Davidson, W. C. Fields, Lloyd Hamilton, and the Three Stooges.

Bruckman’s fatal flaw was alcohol. As the 1930s rolled around he would go on binges and disappear in the middle of shoots. While this effectively ended his directing career, he was still in demand as a writer. But he had a penchant for recycling material he had written for other people and in the 1940s Harold Lloyd sued Universal and Columbia over material Bruckman revised—leaving Bruckman pretty much unemployable. In the early 1950s he managed to work on Keaton’s and Abbott and Costello’s television shows but not much else. In 1955 he borrowed a pistol from Keaton and shot himself.

The national press did not consider his death newsworthy, and there seem to have been no obituaries. Shortly before Bruckman committed suicide, Rudi Blesh interviewed him for his book, Keaton (pp. 148–152):
“I was with Warner Brothers,” Bruckman related. “Warners at that time consisted of Jack, Sam, and Harry Warner, Monte Banks, and a few extras and props, in an old barn of a studio at Bronson and Sunset, where the big bowling alley now is.

“Then I ran into Harry Brand, an old friend of mine from newspaper days. Now he was Buster’s publicity man.

“‘Why don’t you come over with Keaton?’ he asked.

“‘How do I know Keaton wants me?’

“Next day Brand phoned, said ‘Come over for lunch with us.’

“I did and was hired, to start the next Monday. I went back and saw Jack Warner. ‘Jack, I have a chance to go with Keaton—better job, better opportunity. I’d like to close Saturday.’

“‘Can you keep a little secret?’ said Jack. ‘We’re all closing Saturday.’

“And, by gosh, they did—for six months or more. It took a German police dog called Rin Tin Tin to take them out of the red.”

Then Bruckman described the Keaton lot. “I suppose writers should coin phrases, so here goes,” he said. “We were one big happy family. And that’s something you don’t know until—and if—you’ve been in one. In such a situation, gags are never a problem. You feel good. Your mind’s at ease, and working.

“I was at Buster’s house or he at mine four or five nights many a week—playing cards, horsing around, dodging the issue. Then, at midnight, to the kitchen, sit on the sink, eat hamburgers, and work on gags until three in the morning. And how we’d work!

“You can’t match that today, when you walk in on a supervised production, cut and dried, every cough scripted and every sneeze timed, and the bigwigs all a pushbutton’s length from the set. Joe Schenck was too big to be a bigwig. He’s said—and I’ve heard him—‘Tell me from nothing. Go ahead, what should I know about comedy?’

“Buster was a guy you worked with—not for. Oh, sure, it’s a cliché, like the ‘happy family.’ But try it some time. I even hate to mention the playing. It sounds like a buildup. But late afternoons we chose sides and had our ball game—fights, arguments. Rainy days it was bridge in a dressing room—fights, arguments. And we made pictures.” Bruckman sighed. “Harold Lloyd was wonderful to me,” he said. “So was Bill Fields. But with Bus you belonged.

“Well, it’s all changed, anyway. So organized and big a man can’t touch it. It used to be our business. We acted in scenes, set up scenery, spotted lights, moved furniture—hell, today even the set dresser with paid-up dues can’t move a lousy bouquet. He sits and waits until the ‘green man’ arrives. An actor has to fight his way onto the set through technicians, supervisors, experts, and accountants. And television has followed the same lines. So....” He swallowed and looked up. “Other days, other ways, as Nero said.

“Oh, we’d get hung up on sequences. Throw down your pencils, pick up the bats. The second, maybe third, inning—with a runner on base—Bus would throw his glove in the air, holler, ‘I got it!’ and back to work. ‘Nothing like baseball,’ he always said, ‘to take your mind off your troubles.’

“With it all, you wouldn’t believe a comedian could be so serious. He showed them all how to underact. He could tell his story by lifting an eyebrow. He could tell it by not lifting an eyebrow. Buster was his own best gagman. He had judgment, taste; never overdid it, and never offended. He knew what was right for him.”

Clyde Bruckman paused, lit a cigarette, and went on. “You seldom saw his name in the story credits. But I can tell you—and so could Jean Havez if he were alive—that those wonderful stories were ninety percent Buster’s. I was often ashamed to take the money, much less the credit. I would say so.

“Bus would say, ‘Stick, I need a left fielder,’ and laugh. But he never left you in left field. We were all overpaid from the strict creative point of view. Most of the direction was his, as Eddie Cline will tell you. Keaton could have graduated into a top director—of any kind of picture, short or long, high or low, sad or funny or both—if Hollywood hadn’t pushed him down and then said ‘Look how Keaton has slipped!’

“Comedian, gagman, writer, director—then add technical innovator. Camera work. Look at his pictures to see beautiful shots, wide pans and long shots, unexpected close-ups, and angles that were all new when he thought them up. But each and every camera angle calculated to help tell the story—without sound, remember, and with damn few subtitles.”

“...The guy’s honesty was impressive. He wouldn’t fool his audience. None of the easy camera tricks like cutting an action into several parts with a new camera angle for each, then splicing it all together....When he did use a camera trick, he did it deliberately, to make an impossible statement. Like multiple exposure. Not double exposure, which is a picture on top of a picture, generally an amateur accident. Multiple exposure is dividing up the picture frame into parts, taping the lens to correspond, and photographing each part separately. Keaton didn’t originate this idea. It had been used for years to show an actor in two roles at once. But it was a difficult technique. It was hard to join the halves of the picture without a telltale line down the middle. It was also hard to get the separate actions to synchronize—like looking up at the exact moment that your alter ego, in the earlier exposure, said something to you.

“Buster Keaton did the multiple exposure to end all multiple exposures. It was in Playhouse. He did an entire minstrel show all by himself—nine Busters in blackface on the stage at once. Every move, song, and dance exactly in unison. That meant taping off the lens into nine equal segments accurate to the ten-thousandth of an inch.

“‘It can’t be done,’ said [Elgin] Lessley, the cameraman.

“‘Sure it can,’ said Buster. ‘We won’t use tape.’

“He built a lightproof black box, about a foot square, that fitted over the camera. The crank came out the side through an insulated slot. It was in the front that the business was: nine shutters from right to left, fitted so tight you could have worked underwater. You opened one at a time, shot that section, closed that shutter, rolled the film back, opened the next shutter and shot, and so on.

“‘Keep this a secret, you lugs,’ said Buster. We did. Hollywood gave up on that one. No one even tried to copy it.”

Clyde Bruckman stamped out his cigarette. “I often wish,” he said, “that I were back there, with Buster and the gang, in that Hollywood. But I don’t have the lamp to rub. It was one of a kind.”

LIEUTENANT WILLIAM PITTENGER is known for Daring and Suffering: A History of the Great Railroad Adventure (Philadelphia: J. W. Daughaday, Publisher, 1863), his terrifying first-hand account of the now-famous Union attempt to steal a Confederate railway engine and run it north, destroying cables, tracks, and bridges along the way. The attempt was an almost instant failure. Union soldiers under the leadership of a secret agent named James J. Andrews boarded a Confederate train as civilian passengers, stole it during a meal break, ran it a few miles north, and pulled over to a side track to allow a scheduled Confederate train to pass in the other direction. To their surprise, the other train had a flag on its engine, indicating that a second train would be following in a while. Worse, the second train also had a flag on its engine, indicating that yet a third train would follow. This unexpected complication forced Andrews and his men to abandon the mission and flee. They were hunted down by bloodhounds, and the bulk of the book is devoted to the harrowing tales of how the men were imprisoned and tortured, and how eight of them were executed.

THE PRODUCTION. Some time at the end of 1925 or the beginning of 1926 Clyde Bruckman found a reprint of Pittenger’s book, retitled The Great Locomotive Chase. He instantly thought the story would be perfect for Keaton, who was an avid history buff. Keaton read it straight through in one night. As Blesh recounted: “Buster raced to the studio. ‘It’s a picture,’ he said to Clyde, ‘and I want you to help me direct it.’” Keaton would play a part based loosely on William A. Fuller, the conductor of the stolen train, who gave chase on foot and then on several hastily commissioned engines. Keaton’s crew invented gags, and Keaton rejected them all, saying the film would not be a gag picture, but a straight story. “It’s got to be so authentic it hurts,” he said. His research revealed that the stolen engine was named General, that the last of the several engines that chased it was Texas, and that both were preserved in museums. His idea to shoot on the actual locations proved impossible, as the tracks had been modernized. The State of Tennessee was initially happy to loan out the original General for filming, until the powers that be discovered that the film was to be a comedy. Keaton’s staff technician Fred Gabourie and location manager Bert Jackson located period narrow-gauge tracks still being used by the Oregon Pacific & Eastern railway in Cottage Grove, Oregon. And Cottage Grove strongly resembled northwestern Georgia. Wood-burning engines were purchased from the Anderson & Middleton logging railway. These were old enough to be adapted into replicas of the originals.

The story in the film, apart from the initial idea of Union soldiers stealing a train and sabotaging the lines and a Southern crewmember giving chase, was a work of pure fiction, but it was fiction that had the look of authenticity. Shooting began on 8 June. Keaton said to Gabourie:

“Now work fast. Telephone the governor up there and you can get the whole damned Oregon State Guard for the war scenes.”

“Well,” the governor said, “I don’t know.” He hesitated. “We have two regiments going into camp in two weeks.”

“We’ll pay them a salary on top of yours,” said Buster.

“All right, they’re yours.”

Previous Keaton features had been released through Metro and its successor, MGM. Since Joe Schenck had just switched jobs, The General was the first of Keaton’s films to be released through United Artists, a far less wealthy outfit. This may have been the source of later problems, for The General was to be the most expensive of Keaton’s features, originally budgeted at half a million dollars. The cost of the film escalated when July 1926 gave Cottage Grove a record heat wave. Spontaneous brush fires filled the skies with smoke, and Keaton himself led the fire-fighting forces, who consisted largely of the Oregon State Guard. The governor awarded Keaton an honorary captaincy for his efforts. Shooting in smoke-filled skies, in addition to looking bad, would have produced mismatched shots, and so production was halted, at one time for a month, with the State Guard still on the payroll. The production cost shot up to nearly a million dollars, about three times that of a normal Keaton feature. The legendary stories that embers from the General’s smokestack began the fires are untrue. There were a few other problems too, as old-style firearms caused some potentially dangerous confusion, and several Guardsmen received minor injuries during the battle scenes. One Guardsman was even knocked unconscious by an explosion. In July Keaton was sued by Fred A. Lowry for $2,900 for a crushed foot. “Lowry says he was employed as a brakeman on the train and the accident occurred because of lack of safety appliances on the cars, which were made to appear like the cars used in Civil War days. He says in his complaint that the drawhead of a car buckled as he was attempting to couple two cars together and in trying to get out from between them his foot was caught beneath a wheel and was run over” (The Cottage Grove Sentinel, 19 July 1926). Unfortunately, the Sentinel also ran a poorly worded joke story which might wrongly lead readers to think that ten members of Keaton’s cast drowned in the river. For those who may be wondering, the engine that crashes through the bridge was affectionately known to locals as Old Four Spot, which had been manufactured less than two decades after the end of the Civil War by Cooke, the same company that had manufactured the General. The engine by then was worn and tired, and its days were numbered. Keaton gave it a grand send-off. Location shooting finished on Saturday afternoon, 18 September 1926.

THE AFTERMATH. The General was shown to a preview audience in San José, California, during the first week of November 1926. A few days later it was shown in Glendale, California. According to Bert G. Bates in The Oregonian (15 November 1926), “Buster Keaton’s Oregon-made super-feature comedy, ‘The General,’ clicked 100 per cent when presented to a preview audience at the Alexander theater in Glendale this week. The somber-faced giggle producer has one of the greatest pictures of the year, and Joseph Schenck, who witnessed the preview, declared that it was undoubtedly the greatest comedy Keaton has ever produced and should earn $1,000,000 for United Artists.... The picture has laughs galore and will set a mark for Chaplin and the rest of the top-notch comedians to shoot at. Following the preview showing the audience stood and applauded long and loud as a tribute to Keaton’s efforts.” The General was released in Los Angeles on 22 December 1926, and played in several cities in Oregon in early January 1927, but its scheduled December opening at the Capitol Theatre in Manhattan was delayed until Saturday, 5 February. The delay prevented Keaton from making a personal appearance at the opening.

The General was reported to be a flop, with a domestic gross of only $474,264, and critics savaged the film. No one has yet fully researched the reasons for the film’s financial failure. And no one has yet determined its actual earnings or loss, as opposed to its reported loss (there’s often or always a major difference between the two). Perhaps Joe Schenck and the stockholders of United Artists, nervous about the film’s enormous budget, decided to play it safe rather than take a risk on its success, and so instantly wrote it off as a tax loss and refused to promote it properly. As Keaton’s friend Louise Brooks said, in 1927 no one even knew about The General. One may wonder if its fate would have been different had Schenck not switched jobs, and if The General had been released through the more robust MGM. On the other hand, maybe the film wasn’t really a failure. Check out the lovely interview with Marion Mack at She had a different perception of things: “[W]e were surprised when it took off as it did. It was the audiences that made it such a hit; the studio never realized what a gem they had in their hands until the money started rolling in.”

Here are some excerpts from reviews, as printed in Oliver Lindsey Scott’s Buster Keaton: The Little Iron Man (p. 224):

A whole train is wrecked in a deep ravine, if that means anything to you (Photoplay, 27 March 1927).

Long and tedious—the least funny thing Buster Keaton has ever done (Herald-Tribune).

[A] pretty trite and stodgy piece of screenfare, a rehash, pretentiously garnered of any old two-reel chase comedy.... The audience received ‘The General’ with polite attention, occasionally a laugh, and occasionally a yawn. Disappointing (Daily Telegraph).

This is by no means as good as Mr. Keaton’s previous efforts.... [A] mixture of cast iron and jelly (Mordaunt Hall, The New York Times).

‘The General’ is far from funny (Variety).

Many of its gags are in gruesomely bad taste (Robert E. Sherwood, Life).

Probably lots of people will not think it funny at all.... I give you ‘The General,’ a comedy for the exclusive enjoyment of the matured senses.... Buster Keaton has made a financial faux pas, perhaps... (The Brooklyn Eagle).

In response to the real or manufactured box-office disaster of The General, Joe Schenck appointed a supervisor for the Keaton studio and hired directors for his films. A little over a year later he closed Keaton’s studio and sold Keaton’s contract to MGM. After his first film there, The Cameraman, which Keaton fought valiantly to make his own way, MGM dispersed Keaton’s crew and assigned him standard assembly-line projects. Most of his subsequent MGM films are now regarded as unwatchable, but financially they were more successful than any of his independently made features. The reason for this was surely not that audiences enjoyed them more, but that MGM now had superior booking clout.

With his marriage to Natalie Talmadge at an end, with her winning custody of their two sons, and with the loss of his independence and his crew, Keaton became an alcoholic and suffered a nervous breakdown. Shortly after MGM fired him for insubordination in 1933, Keaton dried out of his own volition and began a three-decade-long climb back to the top. Never again would he have the independence or the resources to create anything close to the quality of his finest silent works, but like the characters in his films, he made the best of the situation. He realized that his best work was behind him, and so he concentrated on achieving his other dreams—purchasing a ranch, getting back with his children, enjoying his grandchildren, keeping close company with his friends, and performing as much as possible. He accepted almost every offer to appear on stage, in musicals, in photo shoots, in nightclubs, in circuses, on television, in magazine ads, in TV commercials, and in movies.

In the 1950s the Museum of Modern Art began showing The Navigator and The General, which were then thought to be the only surviving Keaton silents, and a new generation discovered Keaton and proclaimed him a genius, a description Keaton sincerely rejected. In 1965 he won a standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival. He was in tears. “This is the first time I’ve been invited to a film festival, but I hope it won’t be the last.” A few months later he died content at the age of 70, after a night spent with his friends, in the company of his wife, dancer Eleanor Ruth Norris Keaton.

ANOTHER SOURCE. There was a surprise in the Spring 2000 issue of The Keaton Chronicle. Film historian and preservationist David Shepard wrote a letter to the editor, which is here quoted in full:

I am working on a video edition of a quite fine Civil War film called The Coward (1915, produced by Thomas Ince, directed by Reginald Barker, starring Frank Keenan and Charles Ray). Eric Beheim, who is doing the music, noticed many startling similarities to the non-locomotive-chase portions of The General. We wonder if this could have been a source for Keaton?

Similarities between The Coward and The General (none of these elements was part of the original historical incident):

* Confederate recruiting stations figure prominently in the openings of both films.

* Failure of the heroes to enlist is used to advance the plot.

* When they fall out of favor for “cowardice,” both heroes’ photographs are removed from sight by the family patriarch.

* Both heroes overhear a top-level Union staff meeting at which important plans are discussed.

* Both heroes hide under the table in the room where the officers are meeting.

* Both heroes escape by overpowering guards and changing into enemy uniforms.

* During their escapes back to Confederate lines, both heroes are fired upon by friendly sentries because they are wearing the wrong uniform.

* Both heroes relay important battle information which ultimately leads to a Confederate victory.

* The destruction of a key bridge figures prominently in outcomes of the final battles.

For those who are interested, The Coward will be out on DVD and VHS from Image Entertainment later this year as a component of a program of Civil War Films 1911–1915.

The film does make for interesting viewing. The Coward, forgotten for seventy years, was one of the most popular silents and was continually revived during the silent era. Keaton and his crew were surely familiar with it, and it is crystal clear from watching it that Keaton was deliberately referencing this earlier film, largely for comic effect. It is also interesting to note that highly decorated war hero Glen Cavender, who played Captain Anderson in The General, served as technical director for battle sequences on Ince pictures prior to The Coward, and that he had worked with Charles Ray.

CURIOSITIES. The general who gives the command for the engine to cross the burning bridge is Keaton’s former cameraman, Elgin Lessley. The story that Boris Karloff plays one of the Union raiders is incorrect, but there is a Union raider in the film who bears a striking resemblance to Karloff. Marion Mack’s character was called Virginia during the shooting; it wasn’t until the film was edited that her name was changed to Annabelle Lee. Lewis Lewyn, who briefly appears as a soldier, was Marion Mack’s husband. Frank Barnes, who played Annabelle’s brother and who also served as the company’s construction foreman, usually performed under his birth name, Richard Allen. The name Johnnie Gray sounds nothing like William A. Fuller, but it does sound quite like John Grey, who had just worked with Clyde Bruckman on a Harold Lloyd film called For Heaven’s Sake.

ANOTHER CURIOSITY. An episode of The X-Files written by Darin Morgan was little more than an excuse for obscure references and in-jokes that surely almost no viewer would recognize. It was entitled “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” and it was essentially a rebus-like puzzle whose solution was “Buster Keaton.”

BUSTER ON VIDEO. The best video edition of The General was available from the Thames Television International/Video Collection International Ltd in Hertfordshire, on PAL-system VHS, product number TV 8129. This same edition, with a few tweaking mistakes, was also available in the U.S. on laserdisc from HBO video through Image Entertainment, product number ID6862HB, as well as on VHS as part of HBO video’s “Legendary Silents” label, product number 0282. All are out of print, but a few copies of the HBO VHS edition are still available from, and the laserdisc still shows up on eBay. Another major Keaton work, Our Hospitality, was available from HBO on laserdisc (Image Entertainment, product number ID6863HB) and on VHS (“Legendary Silents,” product number 0281). Again, these are out of print, but can still be found on eBay. Ten of Keaton’s fourteen shorts with Roscoe Arbuckle were recently released on DVD and VHS from Kino on Video in New York as a two-volume set called “Arbuckle & Keaton: The Original Comique/Paramount Shorts, 1917–1920.” A superior copy of one of these shorts (The Garage), an eleventh short (Oh Doctor!), and an uncredited Keaton cameo (The Iron Mule), are available on volume 4 of Kino’s “Slapstick Encyclopedia” on VHS. A twelfth Arbuckle/Keaton short, the long-thought-lost The Cook, is scheduled for release from Milestone. The bulk of Keaton’s independent solo work is available on DVD, laserdisc, and VHS from Kino in a ten-volume set called “The Art of Buster Keaton.” Most of the films are beautifully restored by David Shepard, but sadly there are several howlers in Day Dreams, Sherlock Jr., and The General. (The laserdisc and VHS copies are also missing the ending of Convict 13.) This ten-volume set opens with the dull and overlong Metro film, The Saphead, a feature in which Keaton appears, but over which he had almost no control. Better editions of Convict 13, Day Dreams, and The Blacksmith are available on a privately produced tape called A Cluster of Buster, which can be found on eBay. A slightly better copy of Sherlock Jr. is occasionally shown on American Movie Classics, but even that is eight minutes short of the original. Beware of all other video editions of Keaton’s independent work, many of which are incomplete, copied from pathetic dupes, sometimes transferred at speeds that are far too slow, and have dreadful music scores. Keaton’s first MGM-produced silent, The Cameraman, which was also the last true Keaton film, is out of print, but you can still find VHS copies at Amazon. Sadly, the original camera negatives and fine-grains were lost long ago, probably in the infamous MGM vault fire, and so parts of the film (derived from copies of copies of copies of copies) look dreadful. There is also a twelve-minute segment missing from the middle. The out-of-print laserdisc version, which still plays on cable TV, was re-edited to make the gap less noticeable. (In 1977 British game-show host Bob Monkhouse found a complete internegative of The Cameraman in Czechoslovakia. He shipped it to England, but British Customs, mistaking it for contraband, burned it and had Monkhouse arrested.) One of the rarest and most curious Keaton appearances was in a trade-show short from 1921 called Seeing Stars, in which he briefly appears as Charlie Chaplin’s waiter. Only one incomplete copy is known to survive, and no historian seems to be aware of the film’s existence, hence its nonappearance on over-the-counter video, though a few home-made copies have been circulating on VHS.

FURTHER RESEARCH. Perhaps the best place to start learning about Keaton’s life and work is the web site operated by the Damfinos—The International Buster Keaton Society, which can be found at A British-based web site can be found at Another superb source is the three-volume video set by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill called Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow, which was available on laserdisc and VHS from HBO, but is now out of print. It is still available as a single cassette from Connoisseur/Academy Video in England in PAL-system VHS. An impressive article/interview is published as chapter 43 of Kevin Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By... (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968). The best books about Buster Keaton’s life are Oliver Lindsey Scott’s Buster Keaton: The Little Iron Man (New Zealand: privately printed [1995]), Rudi Blesh’s Keaton (New York: Macmillan, 1966), and Buster Keaton’s autobiography (as told to Charles Samuels), My Wonderful World of Slapstick (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company, 1960). The best book on Keaton’s work is Jim Kline’s The Complete Films of Buster Keaton (New York: Citadel Press, 1993). David Macleod’s The Sound of Buster Keaton (London: Buster Books, 1995), which deals only with the post-independence work, is also highly recommended. Daniel Moews’s Keaton: The Silent Features Close Up contains an invaluable final section entitled “Bibliographical and Filmographical Comments.” Alan Schneider wrote a (self-deprecatingly) hilarious and touching description of his work with Keaton in an essay called “On Directing Film.” Keaton, dismayed by what he thought was an insane script, was not his usual joking and laughing self on the set, but taciturn and subdued, giving Schneider that wrong impression that the somber attitude he had on screen was a carry-over from real life. This essay is included in Samuel Beckett’s Film: Complete Scenario / Illustrations / Production Shots (New York: Grove Press / Evergreen, 1969), and was later republished, with a few modifications, as “The Sam and Buster Show, 1964–1965,” a chapter in Schneider’s unfinished autobiography Entrances: An American Director’s Journey (New York: Viking Penguin, 1986). A charming and intensely researched booklet on the Actors’ Colony, which Buster’s father helped found just outside of Muskegon, Michigan, and where Buster had his happiest childhood memories, is Marc Okkonen and Ron Pesch’s Buster Keaton and the Muskegon Connection: The Actors’ Colony at Bluffton, 1908–1938 (Muskegon: privately printed, 1995). Material on the making of The General can be found in some of the above items, but the best source is The Day Buster Smiled (Cottage Grove, Oregon: Cottage Grove Historical Society, 1998).

—Ranjit Sandhu
Friday, 27 July 2001