The setting: Culp Creek in Cottage
The date: Friday, July 23, 1926.
The occasion: Hollywood filmmaker Buster Keaton and his crew are about to shoot the climactic scene for a Civil War comedy, The General. The scene calls for a full-sized train to cross a trestle bridge that has been set afire. A fiercely proud Union general gives the command to the engineer to proceed, convinced that the bridge will hold up under the crossing. It does not.
Watching the scene on DVD is one thing. What must it have been like to be there at the time?
"It was loud," remembers eighty-six-year-old Mary Krenk, one of only a handful of surviving eyewitnesses.
Mary was speaking to the forty or so individuals who had gathered at the Cottage Grove Community Center on this day, August 5, 2006, the eightieth anniversary celebration of the filming of The General. The event was a presentation of the Cottage Grove Historical Society and coincided with their eighth annual "Buster Keaton Days." Our genial host was Lloyd Williams, a city engineer and Cottage Grove native who has made an intensive study of The General. Several members of the International Buster Keaton Society (the Damfinos) were present, as were members of Buster's family. I was lucky enough to be along for the ride as well.
As a prelude to the tour of the locations, the Damfinos' president Patricia Eliot Tobias gave an informative power-point lecture on the film's genesis. It seems the idea for The General was first brought to Buster Keaton's attention in September of 1925. One of his gag writers, Clyde Bruckman, was doing some research on the Civil War when he found a book called The Great Locomotive Chase by William Pittenger. He described the factual account to Keaton, who agreed it would make an ideal film. After all, it dealt with one of his favorite objects: a train.
The plot of The General is rather straightforward. The year is 1861. Buster plays Johnny Gray, a young Southerner who is unable to enlist in the Confederate Army because he is considered more valuable to the cause as a railroad engineer than as a soldier. His girlfriend, Annabelle, and her proud Southern family unfairly label him a coward. The action starts when a group of Northern raiders steal Johnny's beloved train, The General, unwittingly kidnapping Annabelle in the process. Johnny races north into enemy territory to retrieve his stolen engine and his girlfriend. The entire film is essentially structured along the lines of a chase.
Buster's brother-in-law, Joseph M. Schenck, apparently felt the project was worthwhile, too, since he was willing to put up the $400,000 to produce it. By the time the film was completed, it would be over budget by nearly a half a million dollars. This excessive cost was due in part to the location shooting. Thirty-one-year-old Keaton was an avid student of history and was determined to make the film as accurate as humanly possible. "So accurate it hurts," was the way he expressed it.
Since the action originally occurred in Marietta, Georgia, Keaton himself traveled there to scout out the locations. He was terribly disappointed with the area. The railroad tracks were no longer the narrow-gauge variety that could accommodate a train from the 1860s. Negotiations were under way with the current owners of The General to use that historic train in the film. But when the 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 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 maintained a low profile. She preferred working on needlepoint to socializing with other wives and actresses.
Keaton took great pains to replicate the engravings from Pittenger'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 department. 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 mammoth battle scenes. Trainloads of Oregon National Guardsmen had to be brought in to compensate for this deficit.
Every morning at five o'clock the railroad line was closed
down so 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 this inconvenience, but they showed the crew nothing but patience and understanding. This can be attributed at least in part to Buster's likeable 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 payroll, and filming was going to go on for months.
The townspeople were even able to forgive Buster for inadvertently starting a forest fire or two. The wood-burning locomotives had been equipped with safety devices, but they still emitted enough sparks to ignite the surrounding vegetation. One fire near Culp Creek was serious enough to do an estimated $50,000 worth of damage. 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 and fighting the fire with his pants.
The summer of 1926 was an exceptionally hot one, and fires (not of Buster's doing) flared up in all parts of the county. Thick gray smoke hung over the area for weeks, making filming impossible. 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. Finally, on September 18, the production wrapped. To celebrate the occasion, 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.
Buster returned to Hollywood-for good this time-and spent the following weeks readying the seven-reel feature for its New Year's Eve opening. Never had he been so proud of a film: The General would remain for him the crowning achievement of his long career. Unfortunately, the critics didn't agree. The New York Herald-Tribune, for example, called it "long and tedious-the least funny thing Buster Keaton has ever done." Apparently, the Civil War was still too recent for some audiences to accept as grist for satire. When the film went into wide release the following February, ticket sales were disappointing.
An Enduring Legacy
Time has been good to Buster Keaton. Once considered Charlie Chaplin's inferior, he is now the reigning comedian of the silent era. His stoic, unsentimental style appeals to a generation made cynical by the events of Vietnam and Watergate. I was one of those college-aged students who first embraced Keaton's films in the 1970s. Such idolatry even influenced my wife, Debra, and me to settle for a time in Cottage Grove, at least partly because Buster had made The General there. When I mentioned this to a local resident, I was looked at askance. Who cared about some old silent movie anyway?
As it turned out, quite a few people did.
In 1986 the noted British film historian Kevin Brownlow arrived in Cottage Grove with a camera crew. He was there to interview the survivors who had supported Buster in his efforts sixty years earlier. The footage Kevin shot was used in his definitive three-part documentary, Buster Keaton: a Hard Act to Follow.
More light was shone on the film's history when Marcia Allen and Lloyd Williams of the Cottage Grove Historical Society published The Day Buster Smiled. Primarily a series of vintage newspaper accounts of the film's production, the book was published in 1998 and has required multiple printings. In 2000 Santa Monica Press released Silent Echoes: Discovering Early Hollywood through the Films of Buster Keaton, by John Bengtson. Silent Echoes was a revelation to me. In the twelve years that Debra and I lived in Cottage Grove, we must have passed one particular house hundreds of times, not realizing it can clearly be glimpsed in one of the film's closing scenes. Nor for that matter did I know that the barn adjacent to the Old Mill Farm Store (where I purchased bags of cat litter) was visible in the background in a scene involving the recruiting office. [The barn, located at 327 South River Road, burned to the ground early in the morning of July 17, 2008. Arson was suspected. -ed.] Now, thanks to an increasing awareness of the film's historic significance, these sites are considered locally important landmarks. We would be touring each location on this Saturday in 2006, but not until we gathered at the Cottage Grove Hotel (formerly the Bartell) for a buffet lunch.
In Good Company
I noticed Buster's granddaughter, Melissa, and her son, Brady, sitting alone. Wanting to make these honored guests feel welcome, I invited them to join me at my table; they graciously accepted. Between bites of Chicken à la King, Melissa patiently answered my questions. She was seventeen when her grandfather died in 1966, so she had vivid memories of the man she knew as "Grandpa Buster." Instead of being free with hugs and kisses, he showed affection for Melissa by teaching her his favorite game of bridge and letting her play with his electric train set. This occurred during her many visits to the Woodland Hills ranch house that Buster shared with his third and final wife, Eleanor (a woman Melissa adored).
There were Hollywood mementos on display in Buster's den, but Melissa was more interested in gathering eggs from the chicken coop located on the property. In truth, she hardly thought of her grandfather as a star. She was aware that he was frequently on television (on variety shows, in commercials and on Candid Camera), but she does not recall having seen any of his silent films until well after his death. Two cherished heirlooms currently in Melissa's possession are the Eastman Awards presented to Buster and his former sister-in-law, Norma Talmadge.
Much has been written about Buster's troubled marriage with Norma's sister, Natalie, and the speculation regarding their relationship has been a bit harsh, Melissa feels. She loved her grandmother "Nat," and does not remember her as the deeply unhappy recluse of the Keaton biographies. It was, nevertheless, a bitter divorce that ended the Keaton-Talmadge union in 1932. Natalie, in fact, obtained full custody of their two sons, Jimmy and Bobby, and even changed the boys' last name from Keaton to Talmadge. I asked if Melissa's father had ever considered changing it back once Natalie had passed away.
"I don't think it ever occurred to him," Melissa answered.
Brady, a twenty-six-year-old realtor, ate his lunch and listened to our conversation. I asked him for his impression of his great-grandfather, a man who had died some fourteen years before his birth. Brady told me that he has vast respect for Buster's skills as a physical comic, and frequently watches the stunts he performed. But despite the fact that we were surrounded by a roomful of people who are obsessed with his great-grandfather, Brady did not feel that most people his age even knew who Buster Keaton was. Nor did he feel that his films would impress younger audiences who have been weaned on computer-generated special effects. Anybody can do anything now, or so it seems. That Buster was genuinely performing such feats as running atop moving trains or falling off buildings is lost on today's generation of jaded moviegoers.
It was a cogent thought, but a sobering one.
The time for the actual site viewing had arrived. It was a familiar trek for me, as I had conducted a similar tour on the film's seventy-fifth anniversary. But there was something unique about the group I found myself with today. There were a few senior citizens in attendance, but the group was primarily youthful. One especially knowledgeable teenaged fan sported facial piercings and full "Goth" attire. No one was in a hurry to leave a location, despite the blazing sun and the 90-degree temperature.
Several individuals in the group, as I have indicated, are members of the Damfinos. This name is usually met with a look of puzzlement, so perhaps an explanation is in order. In his 1921 two-reeler, The Boat, Buster is the owner of a barely seaworthy vessel. The maiden voyage is fraught with peril. When a storm arises, Buster radios the Coast Guard for help. Asked to identify the name of the boat, Buster (via an intertitle) answers, "Damfino."
"Neither do I," the operator says testily.
Before the tour's conclusion, we had made most of the stops highlighted in Silent Echoes: the site of the railroad tracks (now paved over for a bicycle trail); the barn in the recruiting scene; Kelley Field, the spot Buster and his crew used for their usual baseball games between gagwriting sessions; and the general vicinity of the location of Marietta, Georgia, and Annabelle's house.
This particular location brought to mind an interview I conducted in 1974 with Marion Mack, the actress who portrayed Annabelle. Marion possessed something rare for a 1920s actress: long, luxuriant hair. Buster was looking for an old-fashioned beauty to play his fiancée in the Civil War-era film, and Norma Talmadge's hairdresser recommended Marion for the part. Ironically, she had only recently bobbed her hair, but a wig solved that problem. Keaton personally hired the twenty-three-year-old (with a curt "She'll do") at $250 a week. Marion liked the people she met while on location, although she found Buster to be aloof. Eventually, however, she discovered that he liked her when he began making her the butt of his practical jokes. One occurred during the filming of an actual scene, when the carefully groomed actress was doused with water.
Contrary to most published reports, the comedian was a problem drinker even at that high point in his career, Marion told me. His alcoholism would grow far more pronounced in the coming decade. In 1932 he and a group of good-time friends entered Marion's house when she was out of town, and proceeded to all but destroy it during a drunken party.
The Wreck of the Texas
My attention returned to the present when our guide announced that we had reached that holiest of holy sites: the setting of the legendary train crash. This was clearly the highlight of the tour, but getting to it was a challenge. The bank leading down to Culp Creek is steep and treacherous and more than one of us took an unflattering pratfall. Thankfully, though, no one was hurt.
Once we had gathered in this historic spot (normally inaccessible to the general public since it's on private property), we were not anxious to leave it. For what a site it is, as scenic and unspoiled as it was eighty years ago! The voices of the excited Damfinos could be heard in snatches of conversation as each recounted the day of the filming. Who could forget the details of the moment The Texas actually fell?
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. Forty-two thousand dollars had been spent for the scene's exhaustive preparation-a fortune by 1926 standards. 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.
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. Now all that remains of the shooting is a rusted old rail of the bridge, which juts out from the waist-deep water. Just looking at it filled me with a sense of awe-of Buster as an artist, of the permanence of film, of history itself.
On the bus ride home, I reflected on the events of the day. Into my mind also crept the stanzas of a poem that was published in The Cottage Grove Sentinel in 1926:
"When Buster Comes to Town"
'Twas something like a gala day
The green o' trees was in full sway;
'Twas on a morning back in June,
And all the birds were in full tune,
When Buster came to town.
We country folks are slow to fall,
For those who seldom ever call;
And so it's hardly a surprise,
Because we slowly made a rise,
When Buster came to town.
We'll miss him when he's gone again,
From this old spot of sun and rain;
But he'll remember us, you bet,
Because he has opinion set,
When Buster came to town.
That we are square and fell for him,
Nor never criticize a whim;
And did our best to smooth his way,
From scene to scene of his movie play,
When Buster came to town.
He promised that he'll come again,
When Old Sol laughs through
Smoke and rain;
And we'll shake his baseball mitt,
And indicate that he's a hit,
When Buster comes to town.
So then we'll reckon time from now,
Until with silvered head we bow;
And base our facts upon "the time"
We heard the engine whistle chime
When Buster came to town.
NOTE: A beautifully remastered Blu-Ray DVD edition of The General has been released by Kino International.
Then and now photos courtesy of John Bengtson.
Copyright 2009 by Lon Davis. All rights reserved.
Return to "Articles and Essays" page