The General (1926)
Within moments Costas Fotopoulos’ flowing improvised accompaniment to The General felt comfortably part of the film. We were completely absorbed. Costas is also an enthusiast for silent film and joined us for discussion. We often have 3C (Community Cinema Connection) in our discussions – when someone has a significant experience that links with the film.This week it was Sandra’s turn to tell us that her uncle used to play violin in a band that accompanied silent films. A key question that our discussion leader Sonia raised was whether films like The General, which was so entertaining, were better quality that those made today, with all the technological tricks.Costas believed that the films of the 1920s were “innovative and stunning.”Others felt the films were of their time and saw them as part of history. We all agreed that the crash of the locomotive on the burning bridge into Rock River was remarkable and Costas’ accompaniment at this point was a highlight. We appreciated Keaton’s unparalleled artistry – he did all his own stunts, risking his own life. We valued the clever gags and physical comedy.A favourite scene of ours was when he was hiding under the table from the Northern Generals.A hole burnt into the tablecloth becomes a close-up iris frame for Keaton’s eye and then his love Annabelle’s face. We did discuss the serious Civil War theme and how audiences might have responded to historic incidents used for comedy.Did this account for poor audience figures at the time?An informative short film before the main feature told us how Keaton was allowed to use the real General locomotive, kept in a museum in Chattanooga, because it was for a comedy. We wondered about having the Confederates as heroes of the film. We all came away with a deeper appreciation of silent films.I was surprised at Buster Keaton’s subtlety of facial expressions, for example, when he unexpectedly sees his love behind him as he goes to her house. Lesser actors would have done an exaggerated physical double-take. We were all encouraged to see more of Keaton’s work and of course, to look out for more performances by the immensely talented Costas Fotopoulos. Anne Goldstein
Chairing the discussion group for the first time I would encourage members to volunteer, even for tasks they may consider a little daunting, as the rewards of being useful to our very worthy community cinema are so satisfying. I have several times helped in the box office, which I enjoy, and last evening chairing the discussion I found there was no cause for alarm as I received great support from the other eleven in the group. Costas Fotopoulos was the greatest star of the evening which does nothing to belittle the amazing acting, comedy, timing and stunts of Buster Keaton. Improvisng on the piano Costas played non-stop throughout the film with astonishing aplomb and still found energy enough to join in the discussion. One person in the group had had an uncle who played the violin for silent movies and Costas affirmed that films were sometimes accompanied by small groups of musicians who didn't always try to lend atmosphere to the films but played popular music of the period. He said pianists were not always accomplished improvisers, and some played from sheet music. Buster Keaton must have been a true athlete as the stunts he performed were not only breathtaking, they were potentially dangerous. Costas told us, having made many films, Keaton lived into the 1960s without ever having sustained a serious injury. The film tells a true story from the American Civil War. Spies and saboteurs from the Union army steal a Confederate locomotive from right under the noses of the Southern army. Keaton plays a Southern railway engineer who has two loves - his engine, The General, and his girlfriend. He tries to enlist but the authorities think him too valuable to them in his current job so try as he may, expressly to impress his girlfriend, they refuse him. However, he finally thwarts the foe by setting fire to a railway bridge that gives way under the pursuing enemy train and alerts the Confederates of the Yankie plot he had earlier discovered. All of which wins him the girl and military award. One of the facts we learned from the short history of this story in the Civil War and the filming of 'The General', shown before the main feature, was that burning the bridge and losing a locomotive into the river cost $42,000 in 1926. Such a large sum must reflect the success expected for the film, we thought, but in fact, Costas said, it was not very well received in the beginning. Then we considered that showing a Southern victory would not necessarily be well received in New York. It was an evening of new experiences and great entertainment and I for one have not often laughed as heartily throughout a film as I did last night. Sonia
My strongest memory of the show will be Costas' keyboard playing. For over an hour he stared at the screen and matched the tempo of the scene with music that would surely take most composers weeks to develop. After a while my attention went to the screen as I was absorbed by the skill of Buster Keaton, then I had to switch back to appreciating the accompaniment as that was just as skilful. How Buster Keaton can make a comedy out of a war I don't know. But I have now heard over 50 audiences at our shows and I don't recall any that produced such sustained laughter. If only all wars could be so funny. We did set the scene with 25 minutes of documentary before the show, highlighting first Buster Keaton's talents, then Harper Harris' description of the 1861 - 1865 US civil war and the history of the trains that were used in the great locomotive chase. Our audience comprised 26 annual members and 38 others plus the star of the show, Mr Fotopolous. I was particularly happy to see the age range from 10 (my guess) to over 90, several of whom were new to us. This film was the Trustees' choice introduction to our 6 month season that is otherwise selected from audience votes and I think the Trustees clearly demonstrated that trying something away from the norm can be well worth while. Although our volunteer caterers shunned the authentically accurate biscuits and gravy that passengers on The General did enjoy on 12th April 1862, the replacement pecan pie and pumpkin cake that was, and remains, popular in America was devoured with relish. Alas, not by your correspondant though, who gallently allowed audience members first call at the expense of his own culinary satisfaction. Eugene.