THIS YEAR, two Oregon-born landmarks of cinema are sharing a 90th birthday. It was in 1926 that the Hollywood Theatre opened its doors to patrons with screenings of the film More Pay—Less Work and some vaudeville entertainment. That same year, Buster Keaton released The General, his Civil War-era epic that was filmed in Cottage Grove and, although it was snubbed by critics and audiences, is now seen as a bona fide classic.
With serendipity like that, the Hollywood wanted to find a way to combine celebrations, which they’re doing this weekend with screenings of Keaton’s film featuring a score written by local composer Mark Orton and performed live by an ensemble featuring members of the Mousai Remix String Quartet and jazz bassist Todd Sickafoose.
If you’ve never seen The General, there’s no better way to experience it than this: The film is a pure delight that follows the exploits of train engineer Johnnie Gray (Keaton) as he tries to prove himself to his beloved Annabelle (Marion Mack) and hold the lines against an encroaching attack by Union soldiers. It may have been a flop upon its initial release, forcing the director to give up his independence and sign with MGM, but the film’s mixture of comedy, romance, and thrilling action sequences wound up providing the foundation upon which similarly minded modern fare like Shane Black’s The Nice Guys is built.
The music that Orton wrote for these screenings is perfection, too. It entirely avoids jaunty pipe organ wackiness, aiming instead for a rustic vibe anchored by Orton’s folk-blues guitar and banjo, some tasteful percussion, and the gentle sweep of the string section. It’s complementary without being showy or obtrusive, allowing you to get lost in the grand visuals Keaton committed to film.