Keaton’s Is Released

At the apogee of an arc of creativity that produced ten films between 1923 and 1928, Buster Keaton directed and acted the principal role in the great silent comedy The General.

Summary of Event

Although Buster Keaton’s career as a filmmaker began with a kind of apprenticeship to Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle in 1917 and continued into the 1960’s, the work Keaton did as an actor and director in the mid-1920’s is at the core of his achievement as a film artist. Beginning with the moderately amusing Three Ages in 1923, Keaton made a series of silent comedies that demonstrated the range of possibility of the medium. Our Hospitality (1923), Sherlock, Jr. (1924), The Navigator (1924), Seven Chances (1925), Go West (1925), Battling Butler (1926), and The General (1926) are the heart of a body of work (including College in 1927 and Steamboat Bill Jr. in 1928) that exhibits a style, philosophy, and technical proficiency achieved by only the greatest masters in any area of artistic achievement. When Keaton began work on The General, he had developed his skills as a director and actor in his previous films and was at a peak of energy and enthusiasm; he was also in his prime as an athlete. In addition, his relationship with his brother-in-law, producer Joseph M. Schenck, enabled him to work on a scale equal to his ambitions, and the striking authenticity of the period settings and decor of The General reflect Keaton’s access to a production budget sufficient to his needs. [kw]Keaton’s The General Is Released (Dec., 1926)[Keatons The General Is Released (Dec., 1926)]
[kw]General Is Released, Keaton’s The (Dec., 1926)
General, The (film)
Motion pictures;The General[General]
Actors;Buster Keaton[Keaton]
Motion-picture directors[Motion picture directors];Buster Keaton[Keaton]
[g]United States;Dec., 1926: Keaton’s The General Is Released[06740]
[c]Motion pictures;Dec., 1926: Keaton’s The General Is Released[06740]
Keaton, Buster
Schenck, Joseph M.

Buster Keaton.

(Library of Congress)

Schenck had formed a connection with the recently established United Artists United Artists distributing organization, a company designed to release the independently produced films of such notables as Charles Chaplin, D. W. Griffith, and Douglas Fairbanks, and Schenck became the company’s president in 1926. The organization needed films to release, and Schenck made a commitment to Keaton to distribute his next film, guaranteeing Keaton the kind of lavish budget to which Chaplin and Fairbanks were accustomed. Keaton had completed Battling Butler and was considering other projects when the writer Clyde Bruckman Bruckman, Clyde showed him a book titled The Great Locomotive Chase (1868) Great Locomotive Chase, The (Pittenger) by William Pittenger, Pittenger, William an eyewitness account of a Civil War incident in which a small squad of Union raiders operating behind Confederate lines tried to steal a steam locomotive. The narrative had no comic qualities, but Bruckman knew the comic potential of any kind of chase, and Keaton was captivated by the idea of re-creating the appearance of the Civil War era. He was also intrigued by the chance to place a man in conjunction with a gigantic piece of machinery, one of Keaton’s basic comic preoccupations. He asked Bruckman to be his assistant director and told him that he planned to spare no pains to make the film seem authentic.

Keaton and Bruckman originally intended to stage the film on its original location along the Alabama-Tennessee border, but they found no suitable railroad track left in the region and were refused permission to use the original locomotive, which was in a Chattanooga museum. Keaton then decided to make his film in Oregon, because, he later recalled, “the whole state is honey-combed with narrow-gauge railways for all the lumber mills.” Keaton’s chief technical assistant, Fred Gabourie, found sufficient rolling equipment to provide three locomotives and many freight cars. Keaton hired five hundred men from the Oregon National Guard to play soldiers, and seventeen railway carloads of equipment were shipped from Los Angeles. The crew was housed in tourist cars rented from the Union Pacific railroad, and the film was shot during June and July of 1926. Typically, Keaton was directly in charge of almost every aspect of the production. “Now this was my own story, my own continuity,” he later commented. “I directed it, I cut it and titled it. So actually it was a pet.”

Pittenger’s original story was told from the Union point of view, but Keaton knew that, to make a comedy, he had to make the main character a sympathetic underdog. Keaton remarked that “you can always make villains out of the Northerners, but you cannot make a villain out of the South.” His story was centered on an engineer named Johnnie Gray—an almost generic name for an American southerner—who tries to enlist when war breaks out but is turned down because his skills are needed to operate trains during the conflict. In the midst of typical comic confusion, his prospective bride, Annabelle Lee—whose name echoes Edgar Allan Poe’s poetic vision of romantic innocence—rejects him as a coward. Gray is then involved in the double tasks of trying to win her back and trying to recapture his engine, the General, after Union spies seize them both. The first half of the picture involves Gray’s pursuit of the Union troops on another locomotive, the Texas; in a symmetrical turn, the second half depicts Gray and Annabelle fleeing from the Union forces on the General while the Texas gives chase. The visual climax of the film occurs when the Union commander orders the Texas to cross a burning bridge to prevent Gray’s escape. The bridge does not support the locomotive, and in one of the most expensive single takes to that point in film history (Schenck estimated the cost at $42,000), the locomotive falls into the river below, sending steam and debris across the screen. This stunning and still-effective moment is given a dramatic emphasis by Keaton’s cut to the stunned expression on the face of the commander. The film moves from beginning to end with almost no breaks in time and uses only fifty subtitles, primarily in the earlier parts of the narrative; most eight-reel silent features used more than three hundred. Keaton was very pleased with his work, and he discussed the film enthusiastically for the rest of his life.


In 1977, the American Film Institute asked its members to submit lists of the fifty greatest films produced in the United States. Only five films from the silent era were chosen—D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) and The Birth of a Nation (1915), Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1925) and City Lights (1931), and Keaton’s The General. Yet acclaim for Keaton’s achievement was hardly immediate. The film was released during Christmas week in 1926 in Los Angeles and then put into general release in February, 1927. Initial critical response was almost uniformly negative. Of the eleven New York newspapers that reviewed the film, eight were actively hostile, and only the Brooklyn Daily Eagle critic Martin Dickstein acknowledged Keaton’s accomplishment. Even he felt it necessary to point out that the film would not seem funny for “lots of people,” and The New York Times critic Mordaunt Hall found it “by no means as good as Mr. Keaton’s previous efforts.” Another reviewer judged it “the least funny thing Keaton has ever done,” and still another called it “a pretty trite and stodgy piece of screenfare” and observed that the audience responded with “occasionally a laugh, and occasionally a yawn.”

Such an assessment of viewer reaction was generally accurate, given that the film grossed $474,264, more than $300,000 less than the receipts for Battling Butler. The basic production costs of The General had exceeded $400,000, and United Artists took a considerable loss, as 1920’s films did not become profitable until receipts totaled about twice the production cost. Keaton never publicly acknowledged his disappointment or even admitted that the film lost money, but he knew the figures and was under some pressure to succeed financially with his next effort. His creative freedom was curtailed by the experience, and Schenck essentially was responsible for the decision to make College, a film that resembled Harold Lloyd’s very successful The Freshman, one of the most popular films of 1925. For the first time since The Saphead (1920), Keaton was not listed as director or codirector, and the words “Supervised by Harry Brand” in the credits meant that there was someone present to watch the budget during production.

When Keaton signed a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) in 1928, a proviso to the agreement indicated that although Keaton would “be consulted as to story and direction,” the decision of the producer would be final. This effectively ended the brief era in which Keaton made some of the finest comic films in motion-picture history. Yet while Keaton’s career continued on a downward curve through the next three decades, reaching a nadir of sorts with cameo appearances in American International films such as How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965), his reputation gradually began to move in the opposite direction. In 1953, The General was selected to share a place of honor with Chaplin’s new film Limelight (1952) at the coronation of Elizabeth II of England. When the Museum of Modern Art in New York presented an exhibition of United Artists films, The General was the only film that had to be shown more than once because of demand for tickets. By the 1960’s, serious full-length academic studies of Keaton were appearing, especially in Europe.

The turning point in the appreciation of Keaton’s work can be traced to the famous essay “Comedy’s Greatest Era,” “Comedy’s Greatest Era” (Agee)[Comedys Greatest Era] by James Agee, Agee, James which appeared in the September 5, 1949, issue of Life magazine. Agee discussed Keaton, Lloyd, Chaplin, and Harry Langdon, and although he devoted only a few pages to Keaton’s work, his perceptions were so accurate and his prose so compelling and lucid that no one who read the article could look at a Keaton film afterward without being struck by the truth of Agee’s observations. What Agee understood and described was that Keaton’s finest films were not only great comic statements but also great filmmaking and, perhaps more crucially, great American art. The striking authenticity of The General’s sets, props, costumes, and milieu were as instrumental as Mathew Brady’s photographs in projecting a sense of reality about the Civil War. Keaton’s rare combination of almost Lincolnesque nobility, daunting handsomeness, and appealing friendliness is at the heart of his visual conception of Johnnie Gray, the film’s underdog hero. Gray’s struggle to serve his country, win the hand of the woman he loves, overcome the forces of darkness, and amuse the audience is so engrossing that it is hard to understand how contemporary audiences in Keaton’s time were not captivated. As some critics have observed, however, the film was so rich—such a mixture of comedy, adventure, suspense, and serious commentary about war—that its fusion of categories overwhelmed audiences unprepared by anything they had seen previously. Keaton had to instruct the filmgoers of the 1920’s in the art of vision, and The General was part of a process that formed a film-literate public capable of appreciating Keaton’s masterpiece.

The General displays Keaton’s endless invention, his ability to link comic bits in a remarkably tight structure, his extraordinary capabilities as a physical performer, his feeling for the fascination and perplexity men and women experience in the presence of gigantic machines, his sensitivity to such cultural values as decency, modesty, resoluteness, quick wit, and courage, and ultimately, the generosity of spirit and humane qualities that are the essence of comic art. Because Keaton worked in celluloid rather than print or canvas, his accomplishments were undervalued at the time of their creation. In time, however, his genius was recognized, and his place among the giants of film history is secure. General, The (film)
Motion pictures;The General[General]
Actors;Buster Keaton[Keaton]
Motion-picture directors[Motion picture directors];Buster Keaton[Keaton]

Further Reading

  • Agee, James. “Comedy’s Greatest Era.” In Film Theory and Criticism, edited by Gerald Mast and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974. Landmark essay about film comedians, including Keaton, originally published in Life magazine in 1949, is generally credited with marking a turning point in appreciation of Keaton’s work.
  • Benayoun, Robert. The Look of Buster Keaton. Translated by Randall Conrad. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1982. Glossy book combines somewhat esoteric, theoretical analysis with a wonderful collection of stills from Keaton films. Includes an excellent filmography with a biographical outline.
  • Blesh, Rudi. Keaton. New York: Collier Books, 1966. Affectionate biography by one of Keaton’s friends presents considerable inside information, many anecdotes, and some critical analysis.
  • Dardis, Tom. Keaton: The Man Who Wouldn’t Lie Down. 1979. Reprint. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002. A good complement to the Blesh biography (cited above), written from a more distant perspective and utilizing additional information and interviews with some of Keaton’s contemporaries. Includes a detailed filmography and some photographs.
  • Keaton, Eleanor, and Jeffrey Vance. Buster Keaton Remembered. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2001. Celebration of Keaton’s work begun by his third wife and completed after her death by a respected film historian. Features more than two hundred photographs, filmography, bibliography, and index.
  • McPherson, Edward. Buster Keaton: Tempest in a Flat Hat. Winchester, Mass.: Faber & Faber, 2004. Discusses Keaton’s life and career, focusing on the ways in which the actor and director presented comedy on the screen. Includes photographs.
  • Moews, Daniel. Keaton: The Silent Features Close Up. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977. Contains a lucid, extremely detailed analytic chapter on The General as well as a useful survey of Keaton scholarship.
  • Rubinstein, Elliot. Filmguide to “The General.” Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1973. Attempts to be descriptive as well as explanatory while concentrating on the qualities that made Keaton a screen presence and a cinematic genius.

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