Duck Soup Cinema and “The General”

Here in Madison, Wisconsin, the Overture Performing Arts Center screens silent movies with live accompaniment from an organist as part of a program they call, “Duck Soup Cinema”. On April 18th, I had the pleasure of watching Buster Keaton’s, The General in this setting, and it was one of the more fun movie-going experiences I have had in a long time. We were fortunate to experience this film at the hands of Mr. Dennis James, an accomplished organist and lover of silent film.

James began his performance by explaining the history of the film and its score. Filmed in the Pacific northwest, The General was one of the most expensive films of all time in 1926, and it didn’t make all that money back, so it was considered something of a flop. James explained the story: Johnnie Gray (Buster Keaton) is prohibited from joining the Confederate Army because it is determined that his skill as a railroad engineer will be more useful to the cause. But, his sweetheart Annabelle Lee takes him for a coward, and Union spies steal his locomotive, “The General” – with her still on it! A spirited chase ensues as Johnnie must chase down the woman and the train that he loves.

As a silent film in the ‘20s, The General was designed to be accompanied by a live orchestra, and Mr. James hunted down the original score and transcribed it to a solo organ performance, which is what we in the audience got to experience. For the entire hour and a quarter running time of the film, James provided the soundtrack to the film with an organ constructed in the 1920s. Combined with the action on screen, it created a movie-going experience unlike any I have had before. As I sat in a theatre constructed in the 1920s, with live organ accompaniment, watch a projection of film made from the original negative stock in the original aspect ratio, it struck me how my viewing of this film was precisely how an audience would have seen it in the late 1920s. The power of cinema to transport one to another time was never clearer to me. It was fantastic.

Above all, I was struck by just how funny the film is. There is a great deal of comedy, but amazing stunts and slapstick as well. There are multiple train chases – some with Johnnie Gray in pursuit, and some with him in the lead, and they are mined for a great deal of action, suspense, and humor. This is also true near the end of the film as a battle breaks out between the Confederate and Union armies, which includes the famous sequence of a train collapsing a burning bridge – a practical stunt! The General is an epic comedy – and a great way to experience silent film. I understand that it is not possible for everyone to view this film in the same venue as I have, but it is without a doubt worthy of the praise it receives (Roger Ebert placed it in his top 10 films of all time, and AFI has it in the top 20). If you find yourself apprehensive about approaching silent films, it would be great to start with The General, even if in the comfort of your own home.

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