Dallas — In 1926, halfway between Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind, a totally different take on the Civil War era appeared in the form of actor-director Buster Keaton’s The General. This epic comedy—yes, a Civil War comedy—flopped at the box office, contributing the ruin of Keaton’s career, and leaving a strange masterpiece of largely non-verbal comedy to be rediscovered decades later.
Tuesday night, as part of one of the most interesting, intriguing, and worthy aspects of Dallas’ current cultural scene, the Dallas Chamber Symphony continued its series of full-screen showings of silent film masterpieces accompanied by new, live orchestral accompaniment.
Keaton, at the height of his productive life, poured extravagant resources and his own unique vision of the human condition into The General; composer Douglas PIpes (who took the commission for the score on five weeks’ notice, after an unnamed composer previously designated for the project flaked), produced an engagingly supportive, skillfully wrought score for the chamber orchestra of 15 strings, winds, piano, and percussion. As any long-time cinema buff knows, a good score can make or break the effect of any movie; silent cinema presented with live orchestra enhances that challenge because of the prominent role the music must take, and composer Pipes met that challenge beautifully.
Pipe opens his score with a broad, Coplandesque melody, setting up a flow of energy and musical color that continues unabated for 70 minutes, always complementing and often underlining the array of emotions and the intricate psychology of Keaton’s film. Appalachian-style fiddle riffs, sentimental ballad tunes, Lisztian piano figurations, a largely traditional harmonic language, and an intricate set of leitfmotifs constantly and appropriately gave an added dimension to the delightfully bizarre happenings on the screen.
Pipes shared orchestration responsibilities with John Clement Wood (because of time constraints); together, the two produced an unfailingly colorful, often radiant world of instrumental color. Conductor Richard McKay, an experienced hand at this sort of thing, navigated the live orchestra neatly through the challenge of exactly matching musical score to cinematic action.
As is often the case with a work of genius, Keaton’s epic comic vision came across as peculiar to audiences and critics in 1926, and much of that peculiarity lingers. This is an operetta-style take on the Civil War; the Rebs are the good guys (America in the 1920s was captive to “Lost Cause” romanticism), and only white people appear on the screen. Nowhere does the flag of the United States appear, though the Stars and Bars wave triumphant in a scene near the end. Pipes introduces a few Yankee tunes to the score (“The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and an echo of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”) but wisely and with good reason spared us “Dixie”—at least as far as I could hear (though it might have been hidden in there somewhere subliminally).
Almost a hundred years after its creation, and in spite of its ill-fated introduction to the world, The General remains a visual feast. Inspired by a historical incident early in the Civil War, Keaton produced a still-incredible maze of multiple racing locomotives against a backdrop of impressively created crowd scenes and marching armies; his relentless sight-gags and dangerous stunts, the constant comical ineptitude of his maidenly love interest (Marion Mack), and some intriguingly textured character development, come together in The General for a cultural study and sociological time capsule that is also laugh-out-loud funny.
Tuesday night, with the addition of Pipe’s score, the result was a rich and memorable musical and cinematic experience.