Susan Buhrman and the International Buster Keaton Society have just announced (on June 16th) a major discovery for film history. Previously unknown behind-the-scenes materials documenting the making of Buster Keaton’s "The General," has recently been discovered among the effects of an Oregon photographer who had access to the filming back in the summer of 1926. This not only includes several rare photographs, but also the only known script for the film. The script has been identified as the personal copy of one of the film’s writers, Clyde Bruckman, who has a history of his own in the annals of screen comedy. What is perhaps most fascinating is that the script includes Bruckman's and Keaton’s handwritten notes in the margins --an incredible key to the creative process of a brilliant filmmaker's masterpiece. The importance of this discovery to film history can not be overstated.
"The General" is among the most celebrated silent classics in the history of American cinema. Long available in wildly varying quality prints on VHS and DVD due to its public domain status, "The General" was recently restored by KINO from its original camera negative. In high definition, we can more clearly see that the set design, costumes, and props are carefully integrated as important aspects of Keaton’s cinematic vision. In many scenes, the action in the background supports the action in the foreground, and the high-definition clarity allows us to absorb it much better. Night scenes, such as when Buster and his girl are caught in the dark woods as it rains, have a remarkable sharpness.
Opening with about fifteen minutes of plot exposition involving Buster being rejected from serving in the Civil War, it is the locomotive chase that is the axis of “The General,” as a train is stolen with Buster's girl on board. The film then proceeds with a series of several tracking shots utilized to sustain the movie's pace and rhythm. Maintaining his usual theme of an unassuming character's ultimate achievement, Buster the character is presented here as being at his most resourceful, most heroic, and most triumphant. He remains undaunted despite being outnumbered and overpowered, as he maintains control of the mighty locomotive through any and all mishaps along the way.
Throughout "The General," Keaton exhibits his natural expertise at contrasting forms and images. When Buster is standing near the train, he appears to be only as big as one of its wheels. When passengers are shown disembarking, they remain in the background with the front of the train commanding the foreground. As the train is stolen and Buster initially chases after it on foot, the tracking shot of the train fading into the background remains large and imposing against the frantic movement of his small frame in the foreground. The most fantastic scene in the film, where a train crashes into a river from a burning bridge, cost $42,000 to shoot—an enormous amount of money in 1926.
With this copy of Clyde Bruckman's personal script containing his and Keaton's notes, one can see what was scripted and how it was augmented and embellished along the way. How much of this existing script is evident on screen? What might be included that does not exist in the script? Are there any scenes in the script but not in the movie?
The rights of this material has been obtained by the Keaton Society, which plans to publish a book in the near future, featuring both the photographs and the script, along with other rare, previously unpublished material about the making of the film. It will be available for viewing one time only at this year’s Buster Keaton Convention, Oct. 2-4, 2014, in Muskegon, Michigan. For further information about the convention, visit http://www.busterkeaton.com and click on “Convention.”