Recently the news broke that a treasure trove of behind-the-scenes material from Buster Keaton’s The General has been found. It consists of numerous photos, nitrate negatives, and even an actual script (the only one known to exist). For this kind of material to turn up decades after The General was made is astounding, and I know that many fans like myself are eager to hear more details.
I am pleased to announce that some of those details are about to be discussed right here. Silent-ology welcomes Susan Buhrman, president of the International Buster Keaton Society and the person responsible for all this excitement, to talk about this amazing find:
How did you even begin to look for material like this?
Like many Keaton fans, I read everything there was to read! Once I finished all the books and online material, I felt like there just HAD to be more out there, and I noticed that our local University archive (UT’s Harry Ransom Center) had some Keaton items in their collection. I visited the Ransom with another Buster fan, and the thrill of actually getting to see original photos and period publications was overwhelming! In short, I was then compelled to find more!
What kind of search methods did you use?
I try to check the physical collections at Universities and local history centers (most have catalogs online), and like many I hunt the online auction sites–Craigslist, eBay and other sales sites. Your search terms have to be broad–“Silent Films,” “Old Hollywood” etc. will often turn up items that include Buster.
Did you have any previous experience with searching for film artifacts?
I’ve been an antiques collector and dealer for many years, so I’m accustomed to hunting online. No special skills needed, really, just a passion for searching, and a lot of time to sift through results!
The press release said that a “vast collection” of photos and nitrate negatives have been found. Can you give us any information about what we’ll see in those photos?
The photo collection is a variety of professional stills, casual shots, costume tests, live-action photos taken during filming and even some photos of the train crash at angles you won’t believe! It’s an amazing mix that shows a lot of the crew having fun and cutting up. They certainly had a good time filming The General!
Were there any surprises?
We think that the collection was taken by a combination of the Keaton Studios still photographer and the local Cottage Grove photographer. There are a few people who show up on location that you wouldn’t expect, plus many shots of live-action scenes taken from a position much farther away than the film cameras were located. These give us the effect of “widescreen” versions of the film. Amazing stuff.
The press release also stated that they were taken by a local photographer–do we know anything about him?
Yes! He was an amazing man and you’ll read his entire bio in the upcoming book!
How about the script that was also found recently? This was a separate find from the photos, wasn’t it?
Yes, the script was placed for auction recently, and we were able to obtain it.
Does it change anything we know about The General?
The beginning and ending of the film in the scenario are have some major differences from The General we all know and love. The changes make it a bit more poignant, in my opinion, but we all know how Buster eschewed pathos. It’s an amazing read with Buster’s own annotations throughout!
Wait, didn’t Buster always say that they never used a script?
He did! In this case, you have to remember that The General was a BIG budget film with lots of shots that could only be done once. I would imagine that the risks, expenses and complications of filming The General warranted an exception to Buster’s “no script” rule!
What kind of impact do you expect this information to have on the silent film community?
Not many written scenarios survive from the silent era, and the fact that The General is considered one of the greatest films ever made lends importance to its development and shooting process. We can now see how filming vs. editing changed a picture, and see what went on behind the scenes in its production.
How soon will fans get to see everything? I hear that a book will be released…
The original photos and script will be on display at the International Buster Keaton Society’s annual convention in Muskegon, Michigan, October 2-4, 2014. The book should be ready for publication by Winter of 2015.
What’s your advice to fans who wish they could find something this amazing?
You CAN!!!! It doesn’t take special qualifications–just a commitment and ardent desire to uncover the past. This find proves that there are more silent film treasures to be found out there, and if we increase the number of people looking for them–who knows what we’ll find?! There are lots of folks willing to help researchers get started in their quests – just contact The Damfinos if you want a little help getting started!
Many thanks to Susan for her generosity in giving this interview! It is heartily appreciated. You can visit the official site for the International Buster Keaton Society here.
Note: As of October 2015 there have been no concrete updates on the upcoming book. Godspeed, Keaton Society! We’re waiting…