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October 10, 2013

Experience silent film ‘The General’ Oct. 13 at Hatfield Hall

Silent movies were all the rage when Terre Haute’s historic Indiana Theatre was built in 1922. This weekend, Hauteans can catch one of the best films of that era in a modern setting. Hatfield Hall at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology will present the Buster Keaton classic “The General” at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, accompanied by live music, just as it would have been in the 1920s.

Regarded as a masterpiece of deadpan, “Stone Face,” Buster Keaton comedy, “The General” (1927) tells the story of Johnnie Gray, a Southern railroad engineer at the onset of the Civil War. Johnnie has two loves in his life — his engine, The General, and his girl, Annabelle Lee.

Mayhem erupts when The General is stolen by Union spies, who kidnap Annabelle in the process. Thus begins a cross-country rail chase as Johnnie pursues his beloveds in another engine, along the way getting wind of a planned sneak attack.

Can Johnnie rescue Annabelle, The General, and manage to warn the Confederates of the Union’s dastardly plot?

Orson Welles called “The General,” “the greatest comedy ever made, the greatest Civil War film ever made, and perhaps the greatest film ever made.”

The film’s most unforgettable scene involves a train plunging into a gorge when a bridge collapses. According to Turner Classic Movies, the scene was filmed full-scale using a real train that Keaton had bought specifically for the purpose. This meant that it had to be captured in one take, as the engine would be destroyed.

Filmmakers used a life-like dummy in place of the engineer, which was so convincing that spectating townspeople screamed in horror as it plunged to its imaginary death.

Keaton performed all of the movie’s daring stunts himself, instructing the cameraman to keep filming until he yelled, “cut!” or was killed.

Accompanying the film will be silent film organist Clark Wilson. Wilson began his musical training at age 9, eventually accompanying numerous stage musicals and playing at several churches. His professional playing career began with his appointment to the featured organist post at Pipe Organ Pizza in Milwaukee, Wis.

He has since been on the playing staffs at the Paramount Music Palace in Indianapolis, Pipes and Pizza in Lansing, Ill., and is currently associated with Organ Stop Pizza in Mesa, Ariz. He also has  assisted with the planning and installing the world’s largest Wurlitzer organ.

Considered one of the finest scorers of silent pictures, Wilson has also been a visiting lecturer on theater organ and photoplay accompaniment for the Indiana University organ department, and will be working with the University of Oklahoma in setting up a picture scoring program.

He has done extensive silent film accompaniment, including at the Chautauqua Institution in New York, the Packard Foundation’s Stanford Theatre, UCLA, and the Fox Theatre for the Atlanta premier of the restored Metropolis.

His recording credits include seven albums.

“This is a great opportunity for people to see a classic comedy on the big screen in the way it was meant to be presented almost 90 years ago,” said Hatfield Hall’s Bunny Nash. “Movie-goers are so used to seeing special effects created by animators and computers that it’s truly amazing to see what one man — Buster Keaton — did just by his amazing physicality.”

Tickets can be purchased in person, by calling the Hatfield Hall ticket desk at 812-877-8544, or at hatfieldhall.com. Ticket desk hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays,  noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays, and two hours before each event. Complete season information, including artist video clips, is available at hatfieldhall.com.

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