'The General' launches Senate Theater's silent film series

Erica Hobbs
Special to The Detroit News

After last summer’s severe flooding damaged its organ, the Senate Theater’s annual “Silents at the Senate” film series returns Saturday with 1926’s “The General.” The film stars Buster Keaton, who co-directed with Clyde Bruckman, and Marion Mack, and is considered one of the greatest films of all time.

“When we were returning to the series, we wanted to pay tribute to one of the all-time biggest, best examples of film from the Silent Era,” said Lindsay Robillard, who was on the selection committee and serves as treasurer for the organization. “This is a legendary film.”

The screening will feature live accompaniment from organist Andrew Rogers and include a brief organ overture and screening of the Keaton short “The Electric House” before the main film. 

Buster Keaton in "The General."

“The General” is an action-adventure comedy based on the real-life Great Locomotive Chase military raid during the Civil War. After Union soldiers steal his beloved train “The General,” along with his sweetheart Annabelle Lee (played by Mack), Confederate train engineer Johnnie Gray (Keaton) must give chase to rescue both. 

“We’ll have real train sound effects,” Robillard said. “It’s really fun, you get so engrossed in the story, and you don’t really notice there’s no dialogue.”

Although the film is set during the Civil War, Robillard said the film is largely divorced from that reality. Instead, it focuses on a series of slapstick stunts as Johnnie chases the train on foot, by sidecar and on bicycle, as well as the movie’s famous (and extremely costly) real train wreck scene.  

“It’s like a Jackie Chan film, it’s physical comedy,” she said. “The stunts are insane.”

Despite the film’s later success, it was a commercial and critical flop, tanking so badly Keaton lost his artistic independence, leading to a swift career decline. But Robillard said the film’s impressive sets and storytelling have enabled it to withstand the test of time.

“The artistry of the sets is incredible, and it looks beautiful,” she said. “It is out this world visually and is very emotionally compelling.”

Roger’s live organ performance will be another one of the event’s highlights. Unlike modern films with set music, Rogers will be partially improvising as he plays with the film, creating a live score in real time. 

He said many silent films didn’t have music at all or only provided cue sheets that gave organists the setting and length of a scene as well as a few suggested bars of music. Other times, film studios recommended using popular music of the day, though Rogers said he found that distracting for audiences when they were more focused on guessing the name of the song instead of the story. 

These days, Rogers said he doesn’t use scores or cue sheets at all for silent films. Instead, he practices for weeks, playing along with the film, using the music to highlight specific aspects of a scene or the emotions of a particular character, depending on where the mood takes him. 

“You’re kind of the director,” he said. “Through the music, you are kind of helping the person decide what in the scene to focus on.”

He said seeing a silent film with a live organist is a completely different, unique experience than you would get if you were watching it with a soundtrack, and it keeps it exciting for him.

“With the film, my being able to improvise and change it, I’ll do something new I’ve never done before. It may be good, it may be bad, but it’s not set in stone,” he said. “Every time I play, it’s new and fresh for me, and if it’s fresh for me, I can keep it fresh for the audience.” 

Following the film, Rogers will give a Q&A about his approach to the music, as well as a chamber tour of the organ. 

“Silents at the Senate” began in 2019 with a Knights Arts Challenge grant that allowed the theater to expand its silent film offerings. The festival is spread throughout the year, with a couple of films offered in both the spring and fall, though the pandemic and flooding have caused frequent interruptions to the line-up. 

The series is planned to continue May 21 with 1927’s “Metropolis” and pick up in the fall with films TBD. Guests will be required to wear masks until they’re seated.

Robillard said the Senate aims to become the destination to experience silent films in Detroit, and people who might not think they’ll enjoy these movies should give them a try on the big screen.  

“When you’re in a theater and the people next to you are laughing or crying or gnashing their teeth, you kind of have that heightened emotion,” she said. “I think that’s what’s so special seeing a silent film in person at the Senate.”

'The General'

8 p.m. Saturday

Senate Theater

6424 Michigan Ave., Detroit

Tickets: $12; visit senatetheater.com