Were it filmed today, the set piece of Buster Keaton’s The General (watch it online here) would surely be computer generated.
The studio would insist upon that.
We like to think Keaton, who both directed and starred, would fight them tooth and nail.
Elaborate stunts thrilled him, and what could be more thrilling — or costly — than sending a 26-ton locomotive over a burning train trestle in hopes the structure would crumble, plunging the locomotive into the river below?
The fact that he had but one chance to get it right must’ve upped the ante in a good way.
The Cottage Grove, Oregon Sentinel reported that the silent legend, having spent the summer filming on location in and around town, was “happy as a kid” to have nailed this most challenging shot.
The making of silent film’s most expensive stunt seems like it would make an excellent subject for a movie, but for the fact there was very little drama surrounding it.
Keaton ingratiated himself with the residents of Cottage Grove, hosting weekly baseball games and presiding over the wedding reception of a local and a crew member. 1500 locals — half the town’s population — found work behind the scenes or as extras.
His relationship with his his 24-year-old costar, Sennett Bathing Beauty Marion Mack, was strictly professional.
When his wife raised objections to his plans to ride the locomotive across the trestle as cameras rolled, he capitulated, installing a papier-mâche dummy as engineer. (At least one of the 3000 spectators who lined the banks to witness the stunt was fooled, when the dummy’s severed head floated past.)
And although the sequence cost a shockingly expensive $42,000 — roughly $600,000 in today’s money — it left little to chance. Carpenters spent two weeks building a 215-foot-long trestle 34 feet above the Row River, then sawed partway through the supporting structures to make them extra vulnerable to the explosive charge that would be triggered soon after action was called. Engineers constructed a downstream dam so the water level would be high enough to receive the train.
The community was so invested by the time cameras rolled, the local government declared July 23 a holiday, so the entire town would be free to attend. (The Sentinel noted how earlier in the summer Keaton himself approached overzealous onlookers to “courteously request, ‘Will you please stand back so as not to cast a shadow on the picture?’”)
The stunt went off without a hitch, its one and only take captured by six strategically positioned cameramen, but The General, one of the American Film Institute‘s top 20 films of all time and Keaton’s personal favorite, flopped with both critics and the public. Its domestic box office returns were a mere $50,000 above the $750,000 it cost to make. It caused studios to rethink how much control to grant Keaton.
The train remained where it had landed until WWII, when it was fished up and salvaged for its iron. According to a representative of the Cottage Grove Historical Society, a few leftover pieces of track and steel were still visible as recently as 2006. A mural in town commemorates The General, its star, and the 10 weeks of 1926 when Cottage Grove was the “HOLLYWOOD OF OREGON” (or so the Cottage Grove Sentinel claimed at the time.)
The General enjoys a sterling reputation with silent film buffs, though its Civil War storyline is out of step with 2021 — Keaton’s character aspires to join the Confederacy, and the Union soldiers are the bad guys whose train plummets into the Row.
Perhaps nostalgia will shift to Cottage Grove’s role in Stand By Me — another picture in which trains loom large.
Failing that, the Chamber of Commerce has a replica of Animal House‘s Deathmobile they could put on display …
Learn more about the filming of The General’s most celebrated scene and Keaton’s visit to Cottage Grove in Julien Smith‘s fascinating article for the Alta Journal.
31 Buster Keaton Films: “The Greatest of All Comic Actors,” “One of the Greatest Filmmakers of All Time”
A Supercut of Buster Keaton’s Most Amazing Stunts
Some of Buster Keaton’s Great, Death-Defying Stunts Captured in Animated Gifs
Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday.
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