The Paratexts of Buster Keaton’s The General (1927)

Author’s Note: I’ve been giving this talk in various ways for a while now, focusing on different topics within it, and finally decided that it should be a blog post rather than a journal article, in part because I can include video right in line with the text and not have to send readers to a secondary site.

Introduction
In 1862, a group of nineteen Union spies led by James Andrews made a daring attempt to steal a Confederate train engine called the “General” from Big Shanty, Georgia, just north of Marietta. Andrews’s goal was to disrupt railroad supply lines between Chattanooga and Atlanta. The General’s engineer and a small corps of Confederate soldiers commandeered another engine, the “Texas,” and sped off in pursuit. After an action-packed event known as the Great Locomotive Chase, the Union soldiers—dubbed “Andrews’ Raiders”—were stopped and the General was returned to the South. Andrews and six of his men were hanged, while the surviving seven Raiders were repatriated to the North, where they received the first Medals of Honor granted.

Monument to Andrews' Raiders

Monument to Andrews’ Raiders

One of the Medal of Honor awardees went on to write a book about the event, which Clyde Bruckman, one of Buster Keaton’s writers, and Keaton read early in 1926. They immediately recognized the story’s potential as a film plot. The Great Locomotive Chase became the real- life basis for The General, which was made and directed by Keaton and Bruckman in 1926 and released in 1927. While The General was neither the first nor the last film to relate this historical event—the first appears to have been a 9- minute 1911 movie directed by Sidney Olcott called “Railroad Raiders of ’62”—Keaton and Bruckman’s movie was the first full-length feature to do so and the only one in which the events are satirized rather than played straight.

Keaton claimed that The General was his favorite among all of his movies. In making it, he hoped to fulfill his “ambition to make a really big comedy with a historical atmosphere. [….] While this picture will be designed primarily for laughs, it is my aim to make it historically correct and equally acceptable in the North and the South. It will not be a burlesque, but a comedy spectacle of certain thrilling episodes in the struggle between the States.” (“Details of United Artists’ Productions: The General,” Motion Picture News (May 29, 1926), 2573) Keaton’s intention seemed apolitical, stating at the time, “you make villains out of the Northerners, but you cannot make a villain out of the South.” As film critic Jana Prikryl writes, “Later in life he declared that audiences would never laugh at a Civil War comedy whose villains are Southern: ‘They lost the war anyhow, so the audience resents it.’” (Jana Prikryl, “The Genius of Buster,” The New York Review of Books, June 9, 2011) As the cast is all-white, contains no obviously racist jokes about Blacks, unlike some of Keaton’s other films.

Buster Keaton on the cowcatcher of a train engine, holding a large piece of lumber

Buster Keaton in and on The General

In The General, Keaton and Bruckman parody the original source material by telling it from the Confederate point of view and incorporating Keaton’s classic “stone-faced” reactions to every absurd thing that happens to him. Because of prevailing public opinion that the South should be pitied rather than vilified following the Civil War, Keaton decided to cast the Union soldiers as the bad guys and made the Southern engineer—his character—an earnest and scrappy underdog, much like his characters in The Navigator (1924) and Go West (1925). (Tom Dardis, The Man Who Wouldn’t Lie Down, (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1979), 139) Johnnie is courting Annabelle Lee, played by Marion Mack, when the Civil War begins. He doggedly tries to enlist, but is rejected on the grounds—which are never explained to him—that he’s more valuable to the South as an engineer. Annabelle, not knowing of his attempts to enlist, rejects him for his apparent cowardice. But when Union spies hijack the General with Annabelle aboard, Keaton single-handedly pursues them, frees Annabel, takes back the General, and thwarts a Union attack.

Johnnie and Annabelle Lee

Johnnie and Annabelle Lee

Nostalgia plays an important role in the creation and performance of the film and its music. Films using the Civil War as a setting were popular; D. W. Griffith’s  racist 1915 The Birth of a Nation is probably the most notorious. But there are at least 130 movies made between 1908 and 1929 that either take place within the action of the war or use the war to create a set of circumstances on which to base a plot. (Eileen Jones, “The Cinematic Lost Cause,” Jacobin, August 2015) The Civil War and its consequences remained highly visible in both everyday life and culture well into the 1910s and 20s. Some 50,000 veterans—more than 40,000 former Union soldiers and about 9,000 Confederate veterans—met at Gettysburg in 1913 to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of the war, and several books about and set during the war were best-sellers during the period, including Mary Johnston’s The Long Roll (1911) and James Lane Allen’s 1915 Sword of Youth.

Union and Confederate veterans of the Civil War shake hands at a reunion to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of the war

Union and Confederate veterans of the Civil War shake hands at a reunion to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of the war

The issues that we now see as integral to the Civil War, particularly the end of slavery and emancipation of slaves, are rarely touched upon in early movies about the War. Revisionist historians popularized the concept of the War as what Prikryl describes as “a cruel and sordid era dominated by economically rapacious Northern ‘carpetbaggers’ in league with barbaric black freedmen.” (Prikryl, “The Genius of Buster”) The vast majority of these films, which were made by white filmmakers for white audiences, focus on a set of common narrative tropes: a daring capture or rescue of an important object or piece of information, often related to the war effort; a love story in which a heterosexual couple and/or a family unit is divided by some aspect of the war (women pushing men into service is also a significant theme); and a sympathetic view of the Confederate South. While the first two are probably predictable, the attitude these films adopt in regards to the South may be surprising for audiences today. And although a number of silent Civil War movies relied on tragic or dramatic plot-lines pitting brother against brother, requiring sacrifices of non-combatants, or valorizing whites becoming vigilantes against Northern oppressors, some of these films, such as Hands Off! (1926), The Old War-Horse (1926), and Hay Foot, Straw Foot (1928) are, like The General, comedies.

Title slide for The Old War-Horse

Title slide for The Old War-Horse

Keaton was very aware that he was making a fiction film about an event that had occurred within fairly recent cultural memory: only 64 years separate the actual Great Locomotive Chase and The General. So in addition to playing on the public’s pity for the South, Keaton also wanted to capitalize on their memories of the war and its cultural artifacts. Even so, collective memories of the Ku Klux Klan marching in support of The Birth of a Nation were fresh, and Keaton had his film open first in Tokyo to gauge audience reactions before screening it in the United States. While there is nothing in the film to rally white supremacists the way Griffith’s film did, Keaton retains a number of tropes previously established by “Lost Cause” movies, such as beginning the film with the shelling of Fort Sumter; the stoic hero completely engrossed in his mission to help save his town from a Northern attack; and a complete lack of references to slavery. To make his film both “historic” and palatable to audiences across the United States, Keaton relied on these tropes and the power of nostalgia to sell his movie.

There are multiple layers of nostalgia for audiences who experience live accompaniment at a showing of The General today or watch on video: nostalgia created from elements within the film; nostalgia that serves as paratext to the film—things that surround the film, such as music or marketing; and nostalgia that is added by the music that may have been used at the time of the film’s showing as well as that for modern screenings.

Diegetic Visual Nostalgia
The first layer of nostalgia surrounding The General is that created by Keaton within the film itself, what I call diegetic visual nostalgia. Keaton wanted this film to have historical verisimilitude: he initially tried to purchase or rent the actual “General” locomotive engine from Chattanooga’s Union Station, where it was on display. (Today it can be seen at the Southern Museum in Kennesaw, Georgia.) But officials turned him down when they learned that the film was to be a comedy. Keaton also scouted locations in Tennessee and Georgia, but soon learned that not only had the areas been built up, they had also switched to modern railroad tracks on which Civil War-vintage stock could no longer run. In the Pacific Northwest, though, Keaton found exactly the setting he needed. Cottage Grove, Oregon, was still a mining and timber town in 1926, boasting just a single hotel but lots of wide-open spaces that just so happened to be crisscrossed with narrow gauge train tracks. As the North industrialized during the first decades of the twentieth century, a popular view arose in which the more rural South was seen as an Eden unsullied by coal and grit, and Cottage Grove and its environs provided just the right visual of a small Southern agricultural community. Keaton purchased three vintage Civil War train engines, war-used cannon, and a bevy of remodeled freight and passenger cars. The crew built sets right around the tracks, and Keaton hired on townspeople and Oregon National Guardsmen as extras, employing about 1,500 locals over the course of shooting the film.

Photo of Keaton on the set of The General by Basil Wolverton, 1926

Photo of Keaton on the set of The General by Basil Wolverton, 1926

Keaton recreated Marietta in Oregon. Seeking to make a film “so accurate it hurts,” Keaton used engravings in the source book and Civil War photographs by Alexander Gardner, Mathew Brady, and other Civil War photographers as his visual guides. (This observation is credited to Orson Welles.) The sheer amount of photographs taken during the Civil War is astonishing: for the first time, camp sites, resting troops or those in preparation for battle, and the aftermath of battles could be documented in a stable and lasting visual medium. In addition to its role in accurately showing the horrors of war, photography provided detailed historical records that could be used for various, often-unforeseen future purposes. Using period pictures, Keaton had modifications made to the railway stock and passenger cars, created nineteenth-century building facades, and had costumes made when he could not secure actual Civil War-era materials. He grew out his own hair to a length popular among Confederate soldiers, made his own hats, and ensured that co-star Marion Mack was dressed and groomed as Southern women of her station appeared in photographs.Keaton also set up his shots to mimic the still images taken by Gardner and his teams of war photographers. Shooting during the summer and while the sun was high, Keaton positioned actors in front of machinery and at angles to buildings and other figures similar to those seen in Civil War images of soldiers manning cannon or posing in front of tents. While it’s impossible to know exactly why photographs of the Civil War Keaton saw, it’s clear that he made use of common poses and situations. Keaton’s scene in which Union soldiers sit around a table discussing plans neatly mirrors an image of soldiers seated around a rustic table a Yorktown, PA, in 1862; this is a frequently seen pose. The camera angles Keaton uses in his scenes trying to fire a cannon are similar to pictures taken of men on cannon platforms during the war, preparing charges. And the film’s most famous—and expensive— shot may have been inspired by the many images of steam trains and engineers on high trestles over rivers and gorges, such as one of the train engine “Firefly” taken during the war on a trestle of the Orange and Alexandra Railroad or a train wreck at Bull Run.

train wreck at Bull Run

Train wreck at Bull Run; National Archives Identifier 524604

These visual references to the photography of the Civil War function to both reiterate Keaton’s desire for the film’s historicity and provide audiences with a familiar style of imagery inextricably linked with the War. These are created with painstaking attention to visual detail and then satirized. The soldiers shown in the film wear correct uniforms, but Keaton points out the impracticable and awkward nature of some of their features, such as when he struggles with his sword. Annabel may be a paragon of Southern womanhood, but she receives a satirical treatment that keeps her off any pedestals: she is shown to be naïve when she has to feed the engine’s fire, and she’s less-than-elegant when she’s unexpectedly drenched by the water tower. Reviewers noted that Keaton had “gone to considerable expense and trouble in making the picture,” writing, “there is an authentic character about it which shows that it wasn’t thought out over night.” The General, predicted the reviewer, “should be a riot south of Washington. (Laurence Reid, “The General,” Motion Picture News, 35, no. 8 (February 25, 1927), 681)

Paratexutal Nostalgia
The paratext is the material that surrounds a work and contributes to the broader understanding of it. For The General, the paratext includes things like period marketing, reviews, and commentary, as well as its reception over time up to the present. The paratext in this case also includes the music used at screenings of the film in 1927 and the music now attached to the film through various DVD releases, which I’ll get to below.

American advertising for The General at its 1927 release consisted primarily of lobby cards and magazine advertisements. Many of the lobby cards feature caricatures of Keaton done in an Art Deco style, his long face overwhelming the rest of his body. One oft-used caricature includes a stogie burning away between Keaton’s closed lips. Many of the images show Keaton in the grey uniform of the Confederacy. Most lobby cards include a drawing of the train itself somewhere in the background, although one design has Keaton seated on a flying cannonball. Several designs include colorized stills from the film, usually pictures of Keaton and Mack together, but some showing Keaton sticking his head into the mouth of a cannon or sitting on the side rail of the engine. Magazine ads [slide: ad] use the same images as lobby cards, but also incorporate studio-written slogans promoting the film as providing “trainloads of laughter” and “private laughs, corporal laughs, and major laughs.”

Lobby card for The General

Lobby card for The General

Lobby card for Keaton's The General

Lobby card for Keaton’s The General

This paratext emphasized Keaton’s role as the primary character; the different versions showing him in uniforms or partial uniforms of both the North and the South communicated the fact that the film was a costume drama. The relatively few inclusions of Mack in the marketing material suggest that the romance element of the movie was not particularly important other than as a framing device. The cartoonish way in which the train itself is rendered—usually much smaller and in less detail than cartoons of Keaton himself— indicates that while Keaton may have been interested in filming a historic event, studio producers felt the need to tell potential audiences that the movie was a comedy involving a steam engine and all of the prospective shenanigans and stunts that trains made possible.

More recent marketing and packaging material has both emphasized and de-emphasized the film’s setting in the Confederate South.

Other nostalgic elements include borders that mimic those found in silent film intertitles and hand-tinted or sepia coloring. These paratextual visuals seek to locate the action of the film in time and identify the film’s status as a “historical” work; those emphasizing the imagery of the Confederacy present a rather problematic approach in that the make connections with symbols of the Confederacy carry with them meanings today that they would not have communicated in 1927. This paratext appears to have been added to the film either because of ignorance about how audiences and buyers would interpret the flag’s presence or because the marketer hoped to promote the film as a pro-Confederacy work.Four DVD covers of The General

Music and Nostalgia

Between 1912 and 1929, more than 11,000 motion pictures were made in the United States. We call these works “silent films,” but they were accompanied by an enormous body of music, both adapted or arranged from pre-existing compositions and newly written for theatre orchestras, organists, or pianists. A recent study by David Pierce and the National Film Preservation Board, in conjunction with Council on Library and Information Resources and The Library of Congress, found that only thirty percent of these pre-sound films were still extant, with many incomplete or in poor condition. (David Pierce, The Survival of American Silent Feature Films, 1912-1929 (Washington, D.C.: National Film Preservation Board, with the Council on Library and Information resources and The Library of Congress, 2013), 1) For a time, music for these films seemed destined to a similar fate: in the 1960s, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios deaccessioned its entire collection of scores and orchestral parts and sent them to a landfill.

Music for silent film was produced in a number of different formats. Full, original scores for films were not uncommon, but they were expensive to commission, and films were often accompanied instead by “compiled scores,” in which music arrangers created a score out of existing music. While original scores exist in full score for piano, organ, or orchestra, compiled scores can be in full score or exist only as cue sheets, in which just the primary theme or even just the title of a work is provided for the accompanist. In many cases, compiled scores used music from photoplay albums. Photoplay albums were books of multiple pieces arranged by “mood” and scenario, with titles for topics like “airplanes,” “dancing,” “happiness,” “military,” and “sorrow.” Photoplay albums often contain a mix of pre-existing art music pieces arranged for piano or organ and original works written for the theatre; these latter pieces are often identifiable through their prosaic titles, such as “Hurry Music,” or “Mysterioso.” The albums provide not only a snapshot of popular music for film at any given time, but also suggest audience tastes and reception of individual works. One of the most widely used albums, Erno Rapée’s 1924 Motion Picture Moods, notably includes a Chopin Prelude under pieces to use for “monotony,” and an excerpt from one of Bizet’s L’Arlesienne Suites for “orgies.”

Sheet music for original compositions to accompany a particular film often appear with images from the film on the cover. Popular songs not written for the cinema were also used in silent film accompaniment, and many theatre musicians’ personal collections contain a mixture of both. Well-known songs were also used to satirize or “kid” scenes in films in addition to providing the expected commentary on the action and events on screen.

Music was also distributed in periodicals for motion picture accompanists. Publications like Jacobs’ Orchestra Monthly included reports of what music was being used in what theatres; advice columns for theater orchestra musicians, conductors, and keyboardists; articles about individual orchestras, performers, and conductors; the complete parts and a piano reduction for two pieces for use in accompanying silent films; and a wealth of advertisements for scores, performers and instructors, instruments, and accessories. Melody (for the Photoplay Musician and the Musical Home) focused on piano and organ arrangements, providing reviews of new music and several pieces in each issue.

Keaton—unlike Charlie Chaplin, who often composed his own music to accompany his movies—didn’t particularly care what music was used to accompany his pictures. And so while a cue sheet compiled by James C. Bradford was made available for The General, other arrangements, made by cinema musicians for use in their own theaters, were common. These include the James Luke and Donald Hunsberger score for full orchestra, held by the Eastman House Museum, and other versions for smaller ensembles.

Cue sheet for The General by James C. Bradford

Cue sheet for The General by James C. Bradford

The cue sheet for The General was published in 1927 as part of M. J. Mintz’s Thematic Music Cue Sheet series and is comprised of forty individual cues. Bradford used pre-existing music for the cues, relying on the familiarity of many to communicate the film’s action and attitude. The movie opens with “Dixie Queen” to suggest the setting, and when Keaton’s “two loves”—his train and Annabelle—are referenced in an intertitle, Bradford recommended “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” as the accompaniment, indicating that Keaton would more easily give up Annabelle than his engine. A number of cues are to be played “burlesque,” such as the “Light Cavalry” Overture and “My Own United States;” for the first, Bradford even recommends playing the “Light Cavalry” Overture on the harmonium, giving it a comedic effect. The cue sheet uses several similar military-themed marches, gallops, and other generic pieces. Bradford also gives directions for frequent sound effects “ad lib,” particularly for cannonball scenes, crashes, the storm, and Johnnie’s many instances of chopping wood. The film’s biggest crash is marked only “catch crash of bridge collapsing,” which indicates that Bradford expected an experienced accompanist to be capable of creating a spectacular sound to accompany the scene.

The cue sheet is full of works that recall the Civil War and are designed to generate feelings of nostalgia. Bradford incorporated variations on “Dixie;” selections from the nineteenth- century works “An American Battle Scene” by Theodore Moses Tobani, which was an 1898 musical portrait of the battle at Antietam and dedicated to the Union Army; and “Memories of the War” by L. P. Laurendeau. He included excerpts from songs by Stephen Foster, whose music was closely connected with the South; “1863” by Calvin; and “Maryland, My Maryland.” “The Parlor is a Pleasant Place,” suggested for the scene in which Johnnie courts Annabelle at her house, reminds audiences of a time and place of different customs and behaviors, and “Old Folks at Home” hints at the pitiable South. The action is bookended with “Alabamy Bound.”

“Dixie” was created for blackface minstrelsy in the 1850s. I don’t want to rehash the history of the song here (I recommend Karen Cox’s excellent book Dreaming of Dixie for readers), but it is important to understand what it represented to people in the 1920s who might have heard it in conjunction with The General, as their reaction was likely to be quite different from what many of us think today when we hear the song. “Dixie” itself began as satire, making fun of a former slave who longs to return to the plantation, and both Northern and Southern soldiers and performers claimed the right to use it, usually with different lyrics, during the War. It became the de facto anthem of the Confederacy and remained closely associated with the “Old South.” Eubie Blake and Noble Sissie used the song in their 1921 musical Shuffle Along, and it appears to have been regarded as an uncomplicated signifier of the South in general during the 20s and 30s. In 1934, The Etude–an influential American music magazinedismissed all connections between the song and white nationalism. This changed between that time and today, in part because of white Southerners’ revival of the song as a symbol of opposition to the Civil Rights Movement.

Today, the performance of “Dixie” in any situation is extremely complex, involving issues of race and class. And so while it has become a traditional exercise in nostalgia for both the time periods of the film’s action and its cinematic release to use “Dixie” in accompanying The General, each modern use must be carefully read to determine intent and meaning: whether its inclusion is meant to represent contemporary accompanying practices; if it is representing the Confederacy, and how; or whether it appears as part of a valorization attempt on the part of a performer to present the film as political rhetoric for the Confederacy. Likewise, it is crucial to consider the historical context of the cue sheet’s inclusion of music by Stephen Foster, which often included racist language despite Foster’s anti-slavery views. At the time The General was made, Foster’s music was performed by black and white singers alike; Paul Robeson often performed Foster’s songs in recital in the mid-1920s. For The General, Foster’s music seems to be used to construct a soundscape of a genteel Southern society from which, perhaps, the characters come. Bradford’s choice of “Old Folks at Home” accompanies a scene in which the Confederate Army organizes to retrieve the engine while Johnnie triumphs over obstacles in the chase. The song can be heard as sympathetic within the framework of the contemporary attitude regarding the South as downtrodden and pathetic. Nonetheless, in a modern performance, the casual racism of many of Foster’s songs—including “Old Folks”—means that, especially in combination with the cue sheet’s use of “Dixie,” the musical suggestions could be understood as anti-abolition and pro-Confederacy.

The potential for alternate readings of The General based on today’s considerations of the pre-War and Civil War South is perhaps one reason that performers today sometimes seek other music for scoring it, including composing or improvising new music that carries with it no connotations of the politics of the War. At the same time, many performers who wish to recreate the experience of seeing and hearing the film in the cinema in 1927 employ “Dixie,” “Old Folks at Home,” and other songs that would be difficult to defend without offering the audience knowledge of how the South and such songs were received in the 1920s.

Today, if you watch The General at home on DVD or Blu-Ray, you can select from one of numerous scores included on recent commercial releases. Each of these modern accompaniments by Carl Davis; Robert Israel (two scores: one for piano and strings and one for full orchestra); Lee Erwin; Joe Hisaishi; and the Mont Alto Moving Picture Orchestra, led by Rodney Sauer, seeks to replicate one of the many manners in which the film might have been accompanied in the cinema at the time of its release. Davis’s accompaniment is scored for full orchestra, while Hisaishi’s uses a smaller ensemble. Lee Erwin’s score is played on the Mighty Wurlitzer, the “king of cinema organs.” Mont Alto recreates a typical small theater orchestra of piano, violin, cello, clarinet, trumpet, and percussion. For screenings with live musicians can rent a newly created score by Timothy Brock for accompaniment, or hire an improvising accompanist like Ben Model of MOMA and the Library of Congress to perform.

These newer accompaniments for The General vary in their approaches to scoring the film. Composer and performer Mark Orton has gone so far to recreate a historic Civil War sound as to find, restore, and use portable, folding reed organs known as field organs as part of his orchestration,

which also includes popular nineteenth-century instruments like the zither and its cousin the marxophone, autoharp, and harmonicas of various sizes and ranges.

Although modern audiences may not be able to name these instruments, they may well associate the instruments’ sounds with music of another era and/or the South. (Jared Rasic, “General Excitement,” Source Weekly, August 10, 2016.) Carl Davis’s score uses a full, modern orchestra, and is primarily composed of pre-existing nineteenth-century orchestral works for the concert hall, but retains traditional performance practices such as including period tunes; he gives the film’s genre as parody a nod by also incorporating minor-key version of “Dixie.” Joe Hisaishi’s score, on the other hand, incorporates music and musical effects in the style of classic Warner Brothers cartoons and—for reasons I cannot explain—a variety of themes from Stravinsky. I do not know whether this is intended to make connections between war and personal sacrifice, or to signify brutality, or if it has some other function altogether; or has no function at all. (Follow-up: Hisaishi scholar Alexandra Roedder tells me that the composer frequently incorporates music he likes into his scores without intending any “metameaning.”)

Robert Israel’s score is likely similar to what audiences would have heard at large motion picture palaces in 1927. Composed for a medium-sized orchestra with piano, Israel’s score establishes several generic themes at the beginning of the film, including a love theme, a theme for the Union villains, bugle calls, and music for hurrying and chasing. Israel frequently incorporates “Dixie,” and “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” as major themes. He also quotes “Maryland, My Maryland,” and “I’m On My Way,” which was known in the 1920s as a “Negro spiritual” and was used by George Gershwin in his opera “Porgy and Bess” in 1935. (Newman Ivey White, American Negro Folk-Songs (Harvard University Press, 1928), 118.) The score includes references to “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” “Rock-a-bye Baby,” “Turkey in the Straw,” and “The Teddy Bears’ Picnic,” along with a parody of “Hail Britannia,” and a satirical “Yankee Doodle,” to create specific musical atmospheres and to comment on or mirror the action. Israel mimics Paul Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice to signify some frantic physical movements and quotes Rossini’s overture to Semiramide as part of the battle sequence at the end of the movie. Although the Dukas work wouldn’t take on its iconic association with Mickey Mouse until 1940, it was often included in collections of pre-existing music for film accompaniment for suspense or “creepy” situations; Rossini was also a popular choice for exciting music for races, battles, and other high-movement scenes. It’s clear that Israel is trying to recreate a period accompaniment, and I think he does a pretty good job. He uses period pieces and straightforward Western European tonal harmonic language in putting together a compiled score. The instrumentation is what you’d expect to hear at a large theater. That said, plenty of audiences today will take issue with using some of the songs Israel includes, me included. While the film is a comedy and valorizes a Southerner, performances and recordings of “Dixie,” especially, now serve to perpetuate the violence and trauma caused by the use of the song by white supremacists.

For smaller picture houses, a small ensemble may have supplied all of the accompaniment, or it could have been accompanied by an organ, like the version below played by Lee Erwin on the Wurlitzer; or a piano, such as William Perry’s improvised piano score, also below. Like Israel’s score, Erwin’s makes use of pre-existing pieces.

One group that seeks to eliminate the metamusical meanings older pieces can carry is Chicago’s Quasar Wut-wut. Quasar Wut-wut scored The General in 2014 and departs entirely from the previous approaches, apart from an electric guitar “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” While watching the film makes me uncomfortable–more about this below–this is my favorite score because it is innovative and clever in the way it is removed from the period and uses that remove to comment on the film’s action.

There are numerous other soundtracks for the film online, including mash-ups of James Bond themes and other pieces written for other films; numerous piano or organ-only accompaniments; and several for small ensembles, such as an earlier Israel score and the score by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.

Ethics and The General
It is problematic to screen any film that valorizes the Confederate South. While I once screened clips of The Birth of a Nation for a film music class, thinking that it was essential for them to see just how racist it was (in addition to the complicated musical aspects of the film’s original score by J. C. Breil), I now believe that I did harm to them in showing it. The General is a much milder film–race and enslavement are, of course, the reasons for the war, but we see only two Black actors in the film, extras who exit a train and disappear into a crowd. But this disappearance–which is a metaphor for the lack of appearance of any Black actors from the film–is itself an indication of the way whites viewed Blacks and the South in the years following the war and when the film was made. The General may be Keaton’s favorite film, and it is certainly a beautifully-made and funny film, but how do we weigh those aspects against the fact that it is a film with a Southerner for a hero, working for the Confederate cause? I do not believe that the entertainment value of the film is so great as to continue showing it publicly. There are many other great silent comedies available–and many by Keaton–that offer just as much as The General does but do not continue “Lost Cause” rhetoric or celebrate victories of the Confederate South. Keaton doesn’t get a pass just for being Keaton.

The General‘s reception at the time was mostly negative. It lost money at the picture house. Perhaps audiences weren’t ready for films in which technology played a starring role. Perhaps some of the accompaniments didn’t go over so well, or convey Keaton’s sense of satire. Perhaps the film was shown at the wrong projection speed. Perhaps it was too humane, lacking pies to the face and kicks to the rear. Perhaps it was really a thriller with funny parts, rather than a comedy with suspenseful parts. Reviews of the film were mixed. Audiences found the train chases to be monotonous; reviewers decried the focus on the trains rather than on the romance or plotting of the soldiers. While Photoplay’s reviewer found the spoof of the Civil War to be “most uncivilly” handled, they admitted that that Annabelle’s character was “a gorgeous laugh at all the helpless ladies of historic fiction.” (“The Shadow Stage: A Review of New Pictures,” Photoplay (March 1927), 52) And it was the “historic” part—rather than the comedy—that did get praise. Laurence Reid, writing for Motion Picture News emphasized the film’s “real-life story,” but subtitled his review “It Could be Funnier.” (Reid, “The General.) The Film Daily lamented that “the laughs are slow and scattered [….] Buster fails to bring them home to this one.” (“The General,” The Film Daily (February 20, 1927), 10) Educational Screen magazine called The General “wholesome” and “enjoyable, but hardly up to [Keaton’s] best,” (“Film Estimates,” The Educational Screen, 134) and Motion Picture Magazine deemed the comedy “mild.” (Motion Picture Magazine 11, no. 11(May 1927), 60)

Part of this can be attributed to Keaton’s desire to make the film more serious than normal slapstick. Indeed, a February 1928 article in Close Up called “Defence [sic] of Hollywood,” Bryher (Annie Winifred Ellerman) wrote of the film’s realism and what she felt was its decidedly anti-comedic message:

No war film ever made has shown so perfectly the absurdity and yet the truth of war as the battle scene at the finish of that film. When people shoot and wave flags and men rush into uniform they are preparing themselves for a conflict that reduced to its logical conclusions is as aimless and as foolish as the men that dropped at their guns like ninepins, one after the other. [….] There was truth too in the scenes of the pursuit, the tossing of wood over instead of into, the carrier. And the scenes in the forest where they stumble over creepers and into a bear were only a physical representation of the mental happenings of most heroics; brave, uncomfortable, necessary perhaps, but always a little ridiculous. (“Defence [sic] of Hollywood, Close Up 2, no. 2 (February 1928), 46)

Today, the film is recognized both as what film critic Gary Giddins calls “a peephole into history and by any definition an uncannily beautiful film,” and as a masterpiece of comedic timing, stunts, and action. (Gary Giddins and Matthew Dessem, “Buster Keaton’s The General,Slate, November 18, 2008) Roger Ebert hailed The General as “an epic of silent comedy” with “ingenious” stunts and gags. (Roger Ebert, “The General Movie Review & Film Summary (1927)”)  It’s true that the train chases and clever fixes Keaton comes up with to battle his adversaries and their attempts to sabotage his pursuit presage more recent chase films and scenes, and the film’s comedic and suspenseful treatment of these is appealing to audiences whose tastes range from slapstick to more cerebral humor. But all in all, I think it is a piece for scholarship rather than showing.

A follow-up, 22 March 2021: “General Assembly Votes to Scrap ‘Maryland, My Maryland, State’s Pro-Confederate Official State Song.

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