Filmed in Cottage Grove, Oregon, Buster Keaton’s 1926 silent film, “The General,” is considered one of the greatest movies of all time. Telling the story of a blundering train conductor who inadvertently saves the Confederate Army during the Civil War, it mixed a then-unique blend of Keaton’s trademark slapstick with action and drama, not to mention one of the most ambitious stunts of the silent era.
In a celluloid coincidence of cosmic proportions, the Hollywood Theatre is also celebrating its 90th anniversary this year with a summer of special screenings and events, and what better way to celebrate than to throw a co-birthday party?
The Hollywood commissioned the well-known Oregon composer Mark Orton to create an original score for “The General” and tour it around the state with a live ensemble, starting at the Hollywood on Aug. 12 and stopping in Cottage Grove (Aug. 13), Coos Bay (Aug. 14), Bend (Aug. 16) and Klamath Falls (Aug. 17), before returning to the Hollywood on Aug. 19 & 20.
“I think Keaton’s humor is like no other,” says Orton of why he chose to take on the project. “He can do more with the absence of expression in terms of humor than people do with all the craziest antics and gesticulations.”
Orton first became a fan of Keaton’s films in his 20s while working as an audio engineer for the Bill Frisell Trio, which toured Frisell’s own scores to some of Keaton’s films. Orton has since made a name for himself as a member of Tin Hat, an eclectic ensemble that makes the kind of music NPR listeners love, and then as a composer for films, documentaries and performances. He has sound-tracked everything from Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska” to Ken Burns’s “The Roosevelts” and episodes for “This American Life.”
For our radio feature above, Orton gave us a tour of his studio, which is packed full of antique instruments, including Civil War period pieces like a field organ and a minstrel banjo, before taking us through how he composed the score.
“You can score a Buster Keaton movie or any film and have it turn into a cartoon,” says Orton. “You don’t want it to be ‘Tom and Jerry.’ That’s not what he was after. His humor is much more subtle and complex.”
Over the years, Orton has visited many of the Cottage Grove sites in “The General.” Keaton, who also wrote and directed the movie, chose to film it in small, Oregon town because it had a certain old-timey, Southern feel during the 1920s, plus a stretch of low-traffic tracks for all the train chase scenes. He employed some 500 Oregon Guard members as extras to play both Union and Confederate soldiers in the climactic battle (you can find a local history here).
For those who want to retrace Keaton’s steps, the Cottage Grove Historical Society has scheduled a number of August events in and around the town to celebrate.