When I heard the National Symphony Orchestra was playing the score to one of the greatest silent films of early Hollywood, The General, as part of their Nights at the Movies program, I raced to buy a ticket. The film, full of action, love and daring cinematography, along with a rousing score, played by the talented members of the NSO, thrilled the audience that gathered at the Kennedy Center on a recent spring night.
Made in 1926 and starring Buster Keaton, The General is a Civil War story about Johnnie Gray, a Southern man with two loves – Annabelle Lee and his train. When both are kidnapped by Union soldiers, Johnnie sets off in pursuit to rescue his train and his girl and to warn the South of an impending attack.
Buster Keaton deserves every word of praise he has received for this film. He wrote, directed and performed all of his own stunts. For a comprehensive article on the film, visit this link. But for all the fuss over Buster Keaton, it was the beautiful and playful Marion Mack who stole my heart. Her Annabelle Lee is brave in the face of danger and eager to help the man she loves, oftentimes with unintended and hilarious results. The interactions between these two characters on their race back to the South are my favorite part of the film.
The audience in the Symphony Hall was enthusiastic and appreciative. Encouraged by the conductor, we took an active role in the film, booing and hissing when the Union soldiers succeeded in their misdeeds, cheering and applauding when Johnnie pulled one of his amazing stunts. I felt like we’d been transported back the movie palaces of the 1920s and were experiencing the film for the first time.
I’m already looking forward to the next installment of the Nights at the Movies. This is a great way to make the NSO more accessible and expand its audience. And it ensures classic films like The General are never forgotten.