Howdy everyone! It’s been longer than usual since my last post, but for happy reasons–I’m moving soon, and thus any spare time has been devoted to sorting/cleaning/preliminary packing. So you might say that a sabbatical was in order. I’ll admit that the rest of this spring might have to be lighter on posts too, but a new theme month’s in the works for this summer and a possible blogger event is coming this September. So keep Silent-ology on your “pop in now and then” list, my friends!
One of the best-loved films from the 1920s is certainly Buster Keaton’s masterwork The General (1926). Fans are very familiar with the stories behind it–how it was filmed up in sleepy little Cottage Grove, Oregon, how the risky train stunts were pulled off, how the famous train crash into the river was orchestrated, and so on.
While researching an upcoming column on The General for Classic Movie Hub (a slight plug, but it is relevant), I had the happy opportunity to look through some behind-the-scenes photos. I knew a bunch were in circulation, but the more I searched the more kept popping up. There were even a few I swear I hadn’t seen before, chilling on Pinterest as if they were just any other photos or something. Many were on my friend Sara Zittel’s board–credit where credit is due!
So I thought we’d look at a few of them today, to get a fuller picture of what it was like to film The General back in that summer of 1926. It was a much more public event than we might realize!
Keaton and his crew of sixty had plenty of company during their stay in Cottage Grove. The locals were tickled pink about being “the Hollywood of Oregon,” and as soon as the “movie people” arrived they started gathering to watch the goings-on. It’s said that not much regular work got done in town that summer, to absolutely no one’s chagrin.
The local newspaper, the Cottage Grove Sentinel, breathlessly covered every detail of the production. And word spread like Wildfire–soon folks from nearby towns were also flocking in to watch the famous comedian at work. Apparently, a special morning train was available to shuttle people in when necessary.
All the hubbub resulted in more than a few priceless behind-the-scenes photos taken by onlookers and local photographers. Many of the following photos are apparently on display at Cottage Grove’s local museum, and others were acquired by the Damfinos a few years ago (apparently by placing inquiries on Craigslist in Oregon! An out-of-the-box research tip, my friends).
Here’s a fabulous shot of Keaton the Director:
Some of the candid photos really make you feel like one of the crowd.
Imagine standing quietly in the background, squinting in the summer sun as you try to see just what’s going on–and hoping for the right moment to take a picture or two:
Cottage Grove experienced a very hot, dry summer that year, temps sometimes breaking 100 degrees. In many of the photos you can almost feel the summer heat rising from the ground:
Especially in this one:
And this has to be one of the best photos I’ve ever seen of Buster directing. Take it in, my friends. Take it in.
What a treasure!
Keaton and his crew were very gracious toward the locals, aware how much their production had shaken up the village’s usual routines. At the end of a day’s filming they sometimes hosted a dance or put on a vaudeville-style show in the park, much to the locals’ delight. Keaton made himself at home, squeezing in fishing and baseball whenever he had time and even fixing up the town’s local ballpark free of charge. Indeed, Cottage Grove could hardly have asked for a more agreeable crew of “movie people.”
(Notice Natalie Talmadge and Joe Keaton in the top right photo!)
Keaton and his crew also pitched in during the shoot’s more harrowing moments. When sparks from the train wheels started a forest fire, everyone immediately started fighting the flames with everything they could–including their own costumes, shirts, and trousers. The Cottage Grove Sentinel praised the company for their quick action in stopping the fire from spreading.
But wait–there’s more! A home filmmaker or two (I think) hath given us a couple minutes of behind-the-scenes footage, which somehow survived nearly a hundred years. Here’s a GIF from Nitrate Diva:
And someone snipped this GIF from a few seconds of Buster interacting with a fan:
Sadly, there aren’t enough words to describe how awesome these are. Not nearly enough.
Considering the sheer numbers of people who witnessed Buster at work that summer, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if more candid photos survived, tucked away in various Oregon attics and old scrapbooks. If you’re a fan up in Oregon, maybe ask around–you never know how you can contribute to film history!
Don’t mind me, just ending this post with one of the greatest images ever. Cheers!!