In September of 1925, one of Buster Keaton’s head gag writers, Clyde Bruckman, was doing some research on the Civil War when he found a reprint of Pittenger’s book (which was retitled The Great Locomotive Chase in 1893). He instantly thought the story would be perfect for Keaton, who was an avid history buff. Various sources list Bruckman as having brought the book to Keaton's attention either during or shortly after the filming of Keaton's feature Battling Butler (1926). In any case, once Bruckman gave him the book to read, Keaton read it straight through in one night. As Rudi Blesh recounted in his biography of Keaton: "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 (Johnnie Gray) 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. “No shortcuts,” Keaton said. "It’s got to be so authentic it hurts."
However, Keaton fudged noticeably on one key aspect of the story: Pittenger's book took the Union point of view, while Keaton's version of the story took place from the viewpoint of the Confederacy. His rationalization: "You can always make villains out of the Northerners, but you cannot make a villain out of the South."
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, which then had possession of the original General, was initially happy to loan it out the 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 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. Oregon’s governor was initially hesitant to lend Keaton the use of his State Guard for the war scenes, until Keaton offered to pay them a salary on top of the state’s. Shooting began on June 8, 1926.
Since the action originally occurred in Marietta, Georgia, Keaton himself traveled there to scout out locations. He was terribly disappointed with the area. The railroad tracks in Georgia were no longer the narrow gauge variety that could accommodate an 1860’s train. Negotiations were under way with the current owners of the General to use that historic train in the film. But when members of the Tennessee Railroad learned that their prized relic was to be the subject of a comedy, the deal fell through. Keaton’s scouts had to set out to find the needed replacement train and railroad tracks, which brought them to the timber-and-mining town of Cottage Grove, Oregon. Keaton told a reporter that he had been through this part of the Willamette Valley many times before when he was traveling with his family in vaudeville, but that he was usually asleep at the time.
On May 27, 1926, Keaton’s crew rolled into Cottage Grove with eighteen freight carloads of Civil War cannons, rebuilt passenger railroad cars, stagecoaches, covered wagons, houses built in sections, loads of camera equipment and a whole platoon of workers. Buster, along with his wife Natalie (one of the famous Talmadge sisters) and their two sons arrived in Cottage Grove in the family’s big Stutz roadster. They stayed at the town’s only hotel, The Bartell, along with many other members of the company. Once ensconced in her room, Natalie kept a low profile. She preferred working on needlepoint to socializing with other wives and actresses.
Keaton took great pains to replicate the engravings from Pittinger’s book, and eventually built the town of Marietta, Georgia, in the heart of Cottage Grove. The second floor of the town’s biggest garage was leased as a costume and prop shop. A commissary, run by professional chefs brought in from Los Angeles, was set up to provide meals for the staff. Crowds poured into the makeshift casting office, looking for jobs as extras. Even with most of the population vying for roles, there still weren’t enough able-bodied youths to pose as soldiers in the huge battle scenes. Trainloads of Oregon National Guardsmen had to be brought in to make up for this deficit.
Every morning at 5:00, the railroad line was closed down so that the tracks would be free for the filmmakers. To photograph the trains in action, Bell and Howell cameras were set up on a rebuilt automobile that was driven along graded roads next to the track. When parallel tracks were available, the cameras were secured to the top of a railroad flatcar.
All day, every day, week after week, the clack of the movie trains could be heard moving up and down the line. Regular train service to Cottage Grove all but ceased. One would imagine that the townspeople would be upset by the inconvenience, but they showed the crew nothing but patience and understanding. This can be attributed to Buster’s likable personality. In contrast to his deadpan screen image, Buster was quick to laugh and smile. He organized a number of baseball games at Kelley Field, and impressed the locals with his prowess as a shortstop. And during a community-wide picnic sponsored by the Lions service group in July, members of Buster’s crew entertained everyone present with an impromptu vaudeville show. On a more pragmatic note, the residents appreciated the revenue that the movie company was generating. About 1,500 local people were on the Keaton Company payroll, and filming was going to go on for months.
The General was to be the most expensive of Keaton’s features, originally budgeted (according to varied sources) at between $300,000 and $500,000. The cost of the film escalated when July 1926 gave Cottage Grove a record heat wave. One fire near Culp Creek was serious enough to do an estimated $50,000 worth of damage. Sparks from the engines set haystacks alight and caused massive fires, filling the skies with smoke. Shooting was brought to a halt as a team of volunteer firefighters battled for hours to contain the blaze. Buster did his part by standing in his underwear, fighting the fire with his pants, and leading the fire-fighting forces, which consisted largely of the Oregon State Guard. The governor awarded Keaton an honorary captaincy for his efforts. (The day-by-day newspaper accounts of the filming omitted any mention of the film production’s role in causing the fires, and instead put all blame on spontaneous brush fires. Those reports do not tally with the recollections of people who were there.) Shooting in smoke-filled skies, in addition to looking bad, would have produced mismatched shots, so the crew finally packed up their equipment and returned to Hollywood on August 6. After filming some interiors at the studio, Buster and a small crew were back in Cottage Grove for two additional weeks.
On July 23, 1926, the most expensive single shot in silent-film history was filmed for The General. This was the shot in which a bridge previously sabotaged by Johnnie collapses under the weight of the Northern soldiers’ train. Three or four thousand local people had gathered on that hot summer day to witness what would be the single-most expensive shot of the silent era. $42,000 (over a half-million dollars in by 2010 standards) had been spent for the scene’s exhaustive preparation. At three o’clock in the afternoon, Keaton gave the signal to the six cameramen to begin cranking. The unmanned engine made its way across the tracks. The timbers of the bridge had been partly sawed, and when a dynamite charge went off, the bridge snapped in half. The engine dropped with a huge splash of scalding steam into the river below.
The train’s whistle was said to have emitted a long, mournful scream, signaling to the spectators that something catastrophic had occurred. A dummy had been left at the throttle to give the impression that a live engineer had perished in the crash. When the dummy’s severed head floated by in the adjoining stream, more than one woman in the crowd fainted. And the looks of shock you see on the faces of the Union officers in the movie were real, because the actors who played them were not told what was going to happen to the train.
The Texas would languish for fifteen years in the Row River. It was not disposed of until World War II when it was sold for scrap.
The production cost shot up to over $750,000, about three times that of a normal Keaton feature.
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, July 19, 1926).
Keaton himself was knocked unconscious once when he stood too close to a firing cannon, though he was able to resume working later that afternoon. And assistant director Harry Barnes got shot in the face with a blank charge.
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 Texas. 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, Sept. 18, 1926. To celebrate the occasion, there was a huge party in what is now called Coiner Park in Cottage Grove. A drinking and fireworks celebration was held at the Bartell. Things got a bit out of hand as drunken revelers lobbed firecrackers down Main Street toward the church.
With location shooting finished, Keaton and his company returned to Los Angeles to complete the film, shooting the interior and night scenes there and editing it. (Incidentally, when Keaton later bragged that he edited the film himself, he wasn't kidding -- he was understating. He used a cutting room on the grounds of his mansion; the cutting room was no bigger than a toolshed. Keaton held the film up to the light to edit it, rather than using a machine. When Hollywood's history talks about "handmade films," The General is a literal example.)
Go to:A Brief Overview of Buster Keaton