It does seem entirely fitting that the city’s Everyman Cinema is the location for this special screening of The General for when this impressive Art Deco building initially opened its doors to the public way back in February 1937 as York’s Odeon cinema it did so with a showing of ‘The Man Who Could Work Miracles’, a British fantasy-comedy film from that same year. Now we are about to watch the 1926 silent movie classic starring and co-directed by the great American actor, comedian and stunt performer Buster Keaton, a man for whom the term magician is surely not misplaced. He was undoubtedly a pioneer of the silent screen – many would rightly argue even more so than Charlie Chaplin – the ultimate king of comedy and someone who practically invented the action movie genre as The General firmly attests.
In making this occasion even more special, the American composer William P. Perry’s original piano score to The General is being replaced by a contemporary live accompaniment from the acclaimed English instrumental trio Haiku Salut who comprise multi-instrumentalists Gemma Barkerwood, Sophie Barkerwood, and Louise Croft. Tonight the three musicians sit just in front of, and to the right of the huge screen behind a phalanx of instruments and electronic gadgetry. They are immersed in almost complete darkness for the film’s 79 minute duration and remain an unobtrusive, yet essential presence throughout.
The General was inspired by a true story, The Great Locomotive Chase, a military raid that occurred in northern Georgia in 1862 during the American Civil War. Buster Keaton takes the lead role of Johnnie Gray, a Southern railway engineer who has “only two loves in his life”, the locomotive whose name gives the film its title and his girlfriend Annabelle Lee (played by Marion Mack). The plot has Keaton seeking to recover The General after it has been stolen by Northern infiltrators with Annabelle Lee on board and the film’s central premise becomes that of the rail chase.
Buster Keaton impresses as a remarkably gifted physical performer – he did all of his often breathtaking stunts – blessed with astonishing skill, precision and flawless comedic timing, something that is magnified by his perennially solemn, blank facial expression. The humour in the film emerges naturally from the scenes/storyline – in essence, an integral part of it – rather than being the other way round.
For all of its relative modernity, Haiku Salut’s live score captures the essence of the Civil War period perfectly and its often understated presence reflects Buster Keaton’s anti-heroic interpretation of his role. The three musicians flesh out much of the detail in the film’s huge panoramic scenes and add subtle romantic nuances to the relationship between the two protagonists. They also enhance the dramatic tension and sense of movement that exists when the steam locomotives are hammering along the railway tracks. It is a masterful exercise in reserve and power, a perfect fusion of sound and vision that further illustrates The General as being one of the greatest films in cinematic history.
Photos: Simon Godley