Early American Cinema Project: The General, 1926

Richard Chester Proppe

Red Id# 818705063

Professor Zeiner

HUM-370-01, Team 2

July 20th, 2017

Early American Film Project: The General, 1926

At the beginning of the twentieth century the growth of the newly formed American film industry coincided with sweeping changes in America itself. Several new waves of immigration from eastern and southern Europe to the United States changed forever where and how most Americans would live. Along with new faces, that changed how Americans looked, growing economic prosperity, from industrial manufacturing and international trade, shifted the focus of American life from rural areas and subsistence level farming towards jobs in the big cities and increasing middle-class stability and respectability. This changed not only the realities of daily life for most Americans but also the concept, or the Dream, of being American. Along with the benefits of these changes came doubts as to their necessity and a renewed coveting of the stability of sameness that defined rural American life. As more of American life began to be centered around what was happening in Time Square, and not the old town squares, class and cultural divisions between Americans began to distinctly widen. During this time of great social and economic change the distinction and respectability that came along with being a middle-class American became the common Dream of newly arriving immigrants and those already native-born but living hard scrabble hand to mouth existences.

Tapping into this growing sentiment and hoping to avoid the threat of state level censorship laws the major American film studios of the 1920s decided to band together and use it to their own advantage. “With legislators in 37 states introducing almost one hundred movie censorship bills in 1921 (1)”, the American film industry decided that self-censorship and a revision of its public image was a better alternative than the government regulations looming in state’s legislatures. If states successfully passed their own censorship laws the film industry would be required to release different versions of the same film in different areas such as New York and North Carolina, a truly cost prohibitive undertaking. In response, “to avoid government interference with the industry, movie makers had to gain loyalty from more than just the working classes. (2)” Movie studios began to produce films that featured content that would appeal to a more “respectable” audience of native-born middle-class Americans, the majority of whom at the time were whites living in rural areas. “The most famous (or infamous) of the era being D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915). Its racist tale of the Ku Klux Klan was not a problem for many white, rural audience members – the same people who would otherwise be most critical of a medium that attracted urbanities and immigrants. (3)”

Another film released during this period of self-censorship was The General, starring Buster Keaton. Although the film was based on an 1863 memoir titled The Great Locomotive Chase, The General takes some unusual liberties with the truth surrounding actual historical events chronicled in the memoir. Whereas The Great Locomotive Chase tells the story of Andrews’ Raid, an actual military raid that occurred in northern Georgia during the American Civil War, The General recasts the Union army as the stories enemy raiders and the Confederate army as the wars hero’s. Although the original memoir The Great Locomotive Chase “was written from the Union Army perspective, Keaton did not believe that the audience would accept Confederates as villains and changed the story’s point of view.(4)” The reason for Keaton turning the memoirs story around, and the historical truth of Andrew’s Raid, may have been in an attempt to adhere to current studio system policies and appeal to the same white middle-class rural audience that found The Birth of a Nation palatable a decade previously. Even though at the time that Keaton made The General these policies were more of suggested guidelines and difficult to enforce, Keaton still needed the financial backing of one of the biggest studios, MGM, to make his movie. Perhaps by rewriting the stories history, by turning the Confederacy into Civil War hero’s, and by applying Keaton’s own brand of slap-stick comedy the film would gain mass appeal by catering to white Southerners, middle-class rural Americans, and those already frequenting the cinemas in the big cities. If successful, Keaton could cash in big at the box office as well as navigate to rules put in place by his financial backers at MGM. Whatever Keaton’s reasoning, I didn’t work. At the time of its initial release on January 22, 1927, “The General, an action-adventure-comedy made toward the end of the silent era, was not well received by critics and audiences, resulting in mediocre box office returns (about half a million dollars domestically, and approximately one million worldwide). Because of its then-huge budget ($750,000 supplied by Metro chief Joseph Schenck) and failure to turn a significant profit, Keaton lost his independence as a filmmaker and was forced into a restrictive deal with MGM.(5)”

The multiple ironies surrounding Keaton’s film and his sympathy for the Confederacy and or middle-class rural American sensibilities was that the film debuted at the prestigious Capitol theater in New York City, a Union State during the American Civil War and the hub of U.S. immigration and urbanization at the time. Today, the film is regarded by critics as one of the greatest films ever made and probably Buster Keaton’s best work. To me The General stands as a reminder of the identity crisis that Americans faced at the beginning of the twentieth century and the exclusivity and obstacles that the American Dream presented them.

Visual Artifact:  Primary Source, The General



  • Director – Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckmann, Eddie Cline
  • Release Date – Tokyo December 31, 1926, New York City February 5, 1927
  • Cast – Buster Keaton, Marion Mack
  • Producer – Buster Keaton Productions, Joseph M. Schenck Productions
  • Cinematography – Bert Haines, Devereaux Jennings
  • Screenwriter – Buster Keaton, Al Boasberg, Clyde Bruckman, Charles Henry Smith, Paul Girard Smith
  • Based on – The Great Locomotive Chase by William Pittenger
  • Distributed by – United Artists


Secondary Sources:

  1. “The General (1926 film).” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 16 July 2017. Web. 19 July 2017.
  2. Sternheimer, Karen. Celebrity culture and the American dream: stardom and social mobility. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Routledge, 2015. Print. Page 35
  3. Sternheimer, Karen. Celebrity culture and the American dream: stardom and social mobility. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Routledge, 2015. Print. Page 34
  4. “The General (1926 film).” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 16 July 2017. Web. 19 July 2017.
  5. “The General (1926 film).” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 16 July 2017. Web. 19 July 2017.