I had the honor of introducing Buster Keaton’s 1926 masterpiece The General at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s inaugural Silent Autumn Festival this past September 20, 2014. Preceding the show, these informational slides (below) prepared by the festival’s Artistic Director Anita Monga, ran on a loop as people took their seats. Although Keaton had to travel 900 miles north from Hollywood to Cottage Grove, Oregon to film The General, the vast majority of the location shooting took place just steps from the hotel where Buster stayed (above). My brief speech about how Buster had the time of his life making The General follows at the end of this post.
This brief video hosted by A.M.P.A.S. from a talk I gave in 2011 further explains how Buster filmed The General in Cottage Grove. You can read all about filming The General in my Keaton film locations book Silent Echoes.
My introductory speech – Buster Had the Time of His Life Making The General. Much has been said about Buster Keaton’s favorite movie, The General, long recognized as a masterpiece. To begin, it’s an epic, fact-based, historical, action-adventure, romantic-comedy. Almost purely visual, the story plays out as nearly one continuous chase, comprised of remarkably elegant tracking shots. Buster wanted it to be so authentic that it hurts, and watching it is like seeing Mathew Brady photographs come to life.
But I like to think of just how much fun Buster must have had when making The General. Buster loved trains. As a child star in his family’s vaudeville act, Buster grew up traveling the country by rail. Buster used trains in many films, and in his later years he built a model train equipped with special cars to run hot dogs and sodas from his kitchen out to the pool.
Buster filmed The General on location in Cottage Grove Oregon during the summer of 1926. He’d been a feature film star for years, was at the top of his game, and was just 30 years old. Buster spent that summer doing what he loved best; fishing, playing baseball, and making movies.
You can imagine how exciting it must have been for Cottage Grove, a small town, to host a major Hollywood production for an entire summer. The majority of the filming took place just steps from the hotel where Buster stayed, so people were constantly stopping by to watch the filming.
Buster’s antics were well-documented in the local paper. Described as a kindly monarch at work, and quick, nimble, and alert on the ball field, Buster played charity baseball games with several teams, both in town and in nearby Eugene, and would halt production for a quick game whenever he was stuck for an idea. Buster’s co-star Marion Mack endeared herself to the locals by riding around town between takes on her bicycle, reportedly to maintain her trim figure.
Love blossomed during the production when a member of Keaton’s crew proposed to a local girl and they were promptly married. During the reception Buster hid the couple behind a screen, and charged guests $.25 a peak to watch them kiss.
As filming wound down, the Lions Club hosted a farewell picnic and dance at the city park, lighted with Chinese paper lanterns. So much home-cooking was provided that even a ravenous film crew couldn’t devour it all. In turn, the cast and crew, many of whom were veterans of the stage, including Buster’s father Joe, entertained the crowd for hours with spontaneous songs and dance. In an era preceding television, and even broadcast radio, it’s charming to imagine the town and crew sharing simple fellowship through music.
And lastly, with a display of orchestrated carnage that puts the Mythbusters to shame, Buster capped the production by building a special 300 foot long trestle just so he could crash a real locomotive through it. The entire town closed down to watch the shoot, and when the complicated scene went off without a hitch, Buster was reported to be as happy as a kid.
So when I think about The General, I don’t think about the accolades, the top ten lists, the critical analysis. As a fan I just smile, knowing Buster had the time of his life making The General that magical summer. Let’s all enjoy now, The General.
The Bartell Hotel building in Cottage Grove where Keaton and crew stayed during the production.