By: Madeleine DeAndreis
Giant of the silent film era, Buster Keaton, is coming to the Avery Theatre in one of
the greatest movies of all time, The General on Saturday, Sept. 30th at 7pm. The
dynamic Avery Board has scored a major entertainment victory by bringing this
silent film classic to the historic Avery Theatre.
An important feature of the silent film genre is live musical accompaniment.
Originally released in 1926, The General was always accompanied by organ, piano
or full orchestra. Each performance had different original music, as each theatre
had their own musicians who created original scores for the film. The Avery
Theatre board hit the jackpot with local accompanist, Lisa Campbell. She began
practice and compiling the new 80 minute score from a mountain of silent film
incidental music and scores preserved by the Library of Congress and other silent
film music repositories to create a unique and exciting accompaniment to this
classic silent film to replicate the experience of silent film with live music.
About this new performing experience Lisa Campbell said,
“I have fallen hard for silent films and their music and hope to expand this performance into an annual event in collaboration with The Avery. I am honored to share the limelight with the “Great Stoneface” Buster Keaton. Playing a quilt is the closest description of the new piano score which changes moods often and drastically as the action packed comedic drama unfolds for your enjoyment. I am grateful to the theater for asking me to participate in bringing the silent film/live music revival to the Avery. Special thanks to Pat Campbell for encouraging and directing me.”
Fun facts about The General: The script is an adaptation of Charles Pittenger’s
story, “The Great Locomotive Chase,” based on a real-life event during the Civil
War. Buster Keaton co-directed the film with Clyde Bruckman and features Keaton
doing all his own stunt work as well as actually driving the train himself.
Keaton hoped to film in Georgia and Tennessee where the story originally takes
place, but the South had drastically changed after the war, so Keaton found his
“new south” in, of all places, Cottage Grove, Oregon. There he hired locals and
500 National Guardsmen to dress in Union Blue or Confederate Gray to play
soldiers and townspeople. He took inspiration for the look of his film from the
photographs of Matthew Brady, the celebrated Civil War photographer of his
Keaton plays “Johnnie Gray” train conductor on The General, a rail transport
bringing troops and supplies to the battle front. Johnnie Gray, hoping to impress a
girl with his Confederate patriotism, tries desperately to enlist in the army but is
denied because his services are needed as a conductor. Gray gets his chance to
impress the girl when the North steals The General with hapless “Annabelle
Lee”–played to ditzy perfection by Marion Mack–as an unwitting passenger.
Sidenote: the character’s name is really Annabelle Lee, which makes me wonder if
Edgar Allen Poe signed off on the gag.
Remember, this is a comedy and for those not used to silent films might have
some difficulty with finding the humor. Let me help you focus a bit. Any time
Johnnie Gray is playing a scene with Annabelle, watch closely for the gags. They
come fast and are brilliant.
The most expensive single scene shot in silent film history is in The General.
Costing $42,000 in 1926, this scene depicts “The Texas,” a northern train engine
plunging into a river. Filmed with six cameras, this action-packed train wreck took
all day to shoot. The town of Cottage Grove declared a holiday so the townsfolk
could come out and watch. The remains of the train and trestle stayed in the river
for decades until it was salvaged during WWII.
Ironically when released, The General was universally panned by critics which set
Keaton’s career back until he could produce a commercial box office hit. It took
years for this classic to garner the respect it now holds in the cinematic world. Not
only is it beautifully filmed, the production values, acting, costumes, sets and live
music make this movie one of the top cinematic triumphs of all time.
Tickets will be sold at the door, $15.00. The General leaves the station at 7pm, so
get there early to buy popcorn and find your seats because this film is predicted to
draw audiences from all over Siskiyou County. Remember, Scott Valley has
excellent restaurants for dinner or Happy Hour. Get reservations early!
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