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The General
Director: Buster Keaton (Dir)
Release Date:   5 Feb 1927
Production Date:   began early Jun 1925
Duration (in mins):   77
Duration (in feet):   7,500
Duration (in reels):   8
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Cast:   Marion Mack (Annabelle Lee)  
    Glen Cavender (Captain Anderson)  
    Jim Farley (General Thatcher)  
    Frederick Vroom (A Southern general)  
    Charles Smith (Her Father)  
    Frank Barnes (Her brother)  
    Joe Keaton (Union general)  
    Mike Donlin (Union general)  
    Tom Nawn (Union general)  
    Buster Keaton (Johnnie Gray)  

Summary: Youthful locomotive engineer Johnnie Gray of the Watern and Atlantic Railroad has two loves in his life, his train engine, which he has named “The General,” and his girl friend Annabelle Lee. On a spring day in 1861 when Jonnie visits Annabelle in Marietta, Georgia, he learns that Confederate troops have fired upon Fort Sumter and joins the throng of Southerns attempting to enlist in the Confederate Army. When he is rejected because his skill as an engineer is deemed vital to the cause, Johnnie attempts to enlist under various disguises. The recruiting officer finally ejects him, causing Johnnie to exclaim, “If you lose this war don’t blame me.” When Johnnie is too upset to answer Annabelle’s father questions about enlisting, her father assumes Johnnie is shirking his patriotic duty. When Annabelle confronts Johnnie about enlisting, Johnnie tells her the truth, but Annabelle tells him not to speak to her until he is in uniform. A year later, in a Union encampment just north of Chattanooga, General Thatcher and his chief spy, Captain Anderson, make plans to sabotage the Confederate railroad: They will enter the South posing as civilians, steal a train then proceed North, burning every bridge along the way to cut off supplies to the southern troops. Union General Parker will advance to engage the Confederates in a surprise attack on day they steal the train. Meanwhile, in Marietta, Annabelle, who still shuns Johnnie, boards The General en route to visit her father, who has been wounded in the war. When all the passengers disembark at Big Shanty for dinner, except Annabelle, who is in the luggage car searching for her trunk, the disguised Union spies remove the pin to the passenger cars and steal the engine and luggage car. While Johnnie chases The General with a hand-operated car, the Union soldiers discover Annabelle and tie her up. Johnnie is than derailed and continues on a penny-farthing bike until he reaches the Confederate encampment in Kinston, where he convinces an officer to help him find the train. After Confederate troops are loaded into several railroad cars, Johnnie leaves the station piloting an engine called The Texas; however, he is so preoccupied with the chase that he fails to look behind him until miles down the track, where he realizes that the troop cars are not attached to the engine. Deciding to fight for The General alone, Johnny attaches a car with a canon he finds on the tracks. As he approaches The General, Johnnie attempts to load and fire the cannon, but he accidentally jostles it in the direction of his train. As Johnnie rushes to the front of the train to protect himself from the blast, the train rounds a bend causing the cannon to fire at the Union soldiers instead. The Union soldiers, now fearing for their lives, disconnect their last car in hopes of stopping The Texas. Johnnie spots the slowing car and tries to switch it onto another set of tracks; however, the Union soldiers then drop a log across the tracks,which derails the car. Johnnie, having just turned his head, is baffled when he finds the car has suddenly disappeared. As the Union soldiers throw more logs across the tracks, Johnnie runs to the cow-catcher at the front of the train and cleverly pushes the logs off the track. At a changing station, the Union soldiers switch tracks to divert Johnnie, but Johnnie connects back to the main rail. As the chase continues, Johnnie is so absorbed with cutting wood to feed his boiler that he does not notice the hundreds of Confederate soldiers fleeing south as General Parker’s victorious Union army advances. When he finally realizes he is crossing into enemy territory, Johnnie abandons his train and runs into the woods to hide. During a rainstorm that night, Johnnie sneaks into a home for shelter, but finds himself trapped under the dining room table when a group of Union officers seat themselves to discuss their battle plans. Johnnie learns that Union soldiers are planning a surprise attack for the following morning and that Annabelle is their prisoner. Later, as the others sleep, Johnnie manages to escape the dining room, change into a Union uniform and rescue Annabelle. They flee into forest, where lightening sends them running into each other’s arms. The next day, Johnnie decides they must warn the Confederates about the attack. After stuffing Annabelle into a sack, Johnnie loads her onto a freight car attached to The General and then takes off towards the South. As Union troops began a chase, Johnnie helps Annabelle into The General, then unpins the luggage car, thus hampering the Union car’s speed until they are able to remove the car. When Johnnie leaves the train to move a crosstie, Annabelle, unable to work the gears, runs the engine forward and backward, leaving Johnnie behind, until he finally catches the train. As they reach Rock River bridge, Johnnie sets the bridge on fire to hinder their pursuers. When Annabelle accidentally puts a burning log between Johnnie and the train, Johnnie tries to leap onto the train, but misses the track and falls straight in to the water below. Upon reaching southern territory, they rush to the Confederate headquarters, where Johnnie informs the commander of Union plans and Annabelle is reunited with her father. Soon after, the Confederate troops arrive at the bridge just as the Union soldiers attempt to drive the supply train over it. As a car plunges into the water, the Confederate Army fires at the approaching Union troops who are fording the river. Johnnie attempts to help by firing a cannon, but aims it in wrong direction. The blast breaks a dam upstream, flooding the river and washing out a whole line of approaching Union soldiers. Victorious, Johnnie returns to southern headquarters, where he is commissioned as a lieutenant and thus wins the love of Annabelle. When passing soldiers salute the new officer, Johnnie embraces Annabelle with his left hand, freeing his right hand to salute. 

Production Company: Buster Keaton Productions  
Distribution Company: United Artists Corp.  
Director: Buster Keaton (Dir)
  Clyde Bruckman (Dir)
Producer: Joseph M. Schenck (Prod)
Writer: Buster Keaton (Wrt)
  Clyde Bruckman (Wrt)
  Al Boasberg (Adpt)
  Charles Smith (Adpt)
Photography: Dev Jennings (Photog)
  Bert Haines (Photog)
  Denver Harmon (Lighting eff)
Art Direction: Fred Gabourie (Tech dir)
Country: United States
Language: English

Source Text: Based on the novel Daring and Suffering: A History of the Great Railroad Adventure by William Pittenger (Philadelphia, 1863).
Authors: William Pittenger

Copyright Claimant Copyright Date Copyright Number
Joseph M. Schenck 22/12/1926 dd/mm/yyyy LP23453

Physical Properties: Si:

Genre: Comedy
Sub-Genre: Civil War
Subjects (Major): Chases
  Railroad engineers
  United States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865
Subjects (Minor): Bridges
  Impersonation and imposture
  Military service, Voluntary
  Officers (Military)
  Train wrecks

Note: Although Buster Keaton is listed above the title for the film in the opening credits, he is last in the cast of characters at the end of the film. The General is based on an event in the American Civil War that happened in the spring of 1862. A spy named James J. Andrews, accompanied by Union soldiers, penetrated Confederate lines in Tennessee, stole a train in Marietta, Georgia and drove it North. They intended to destroy track and bridges to prevent the Confederates from sending troops to counter an intended surprise attack in Tennessee. Andrews was captured outside Chatanooga because of train difficulties, and the persistence of the train's Confederate conductor, William Fuller, who persued the train on foot, by handcar and train. The Union soliders were later awarded Congressional Medals of Honour for their efforts.
       During The General 's production, Joseph Schenck, producer and president of Buster Keaton Productions, became president of United Artists. One of Schenck's first decisions at United Artists was to give additional funding to complete The General and for United Artists to distribute the film. According to modern sources, the film was not financial success for either Schenck and United Artists.
       According to modern sources, The General was shot on location near Cottage Grove, Oregon, the McKenzie River in Oregon, Santa Monica and Hollywood, California. Keaton attempted to use historically accurate locomotives, sets and costumes from the Civil War period film. As part of the production, a small river was damed to create the look of the wide Mississippi River. When an appropriate trestle bridge could not be found, Keaton ordered one built. Several modern sources claim that the scene in which the train crashes from this bridge cost over $42,000, making it the most expensive single scene to be shot in silent films to date. Keaton performed all of his own stunts, which put him in great danger during the production.
       The crew for the film included 500 members of the Oregon National Guard, who were hired as army soldiers. Keaton's father, Joe Keaton, plays a Union general in the film. Modern sources add Richard Allen; Jimmy Bryant; Budd Fine; Frank Hagney; Ray Hanford; Al Hanson; Anthony Harvey, I; Edward Hearn; Ross McCutheon; Tom Moran; Charles Phillips; Red Rial; Ray Thomas and Ted Thompson; Jackie Lowe, Jackie Hanlon and Jack Dempster to the cast. Modern sources also credit Harry Barnes as the film’s assistant director, Sherman Kell as the film editor, Harry Barnes as assistant editor and Fred C. Ryle with makeup.
       In later interviews, Keaton described The General as one of his favorite films. Although the contemporary reviews were mixed, the film received critical acclaim in the 1960s, a few years before before Keaton's death in 1966. Many modern sources have proclaimed the film to be the greatest comic epic of all time. In 2007, The General was ranked 18th on AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies--10th Anniversary Edition list of the greatest American films and was also ranked 18th on AFI's list of funniest movies.
       The Walt Disney Studios used the same source material for The Great Locomotive Chase in 1956, directed by Francis D. Lyon and starring Fess Parker; however, this film was told from a Union soldier's viewpoint, and was not a comedy.
       Although modern sources note that Keaton was hired to create gags for Red Skelton to use in the 1948 M-G-M film A Southern Yankee (see AFI Catalog of Feature Film, 1941--50 ), which was also based on the same historical incident, the plot of the M-G-M film is only slightly related to it or either The General or The Great Locomotive Chase . In the 1960s reissue of the The General , new sound effects and new score by Konrad Elfers were created for the film, but the original titles were retained. 

Bibliographic Sources:   Date   Page
American Movie Classics Magazine   Oct 1995.   
Film Daily   20 Feb 1927   p. 10.
Films and Filming   Sep 1961.   
Films and Filming   Oct 1963.   
Los Angeles Times   14 May 1998.   
Life   Feb 1927   p. 26.
MPW   12 Feb 1927   p. 513.
New York Times   8 Feb 1927   p. 21.
New York Times   1 Aug 1971.   
Photoplay   Mar 1927.   
Variety   9 Feb 1927   p. 16.

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The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.
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