Buster Keaton in “The General.”
COLUMBUS GA. — I visited the Fox Theater in Atlanta. I never miss a chance to see a silent movie on the big screen. I think I became interested in silent movies after reading a quote from Mary Pickford. She said,” It would make more sense if movies had gone from sound to silent instead of the other way around.” I was intrigued by the statement and wondered what I was missing.
The Fox Theater
My wife and I went to the Fox Theater in Atlanta to see Buster Keaton in “The General.” My wife had never been to the Fox and I told her that she was in for a treat.
The Fox is a show piece in itself. It all starts at the Theater box office. Its Alhambra-inspired motif greets the patron as one enters the world of Egyptian, Moorish, and Turkish delights. The lobby is illuminated by accent lighting giving one the feeling that we have entered the Sultan’s tent. As we entered the auditorium we realize that we are not in a theater but the Sultan’s courtyard in the early evening. Stars twinkle in an azure blue sky and thin, wispy clouds drift silently overhead. We find our seats and settle in for what promises to be more than a movie. It will be an experience! The lights dim and the air is suddenly rent with the thunderous sounds of organ music. The music builds as the Mighty Mo magically rises from the orchestra pit. I recognize the tune; “There’s no business-like Show Business!” The audience cannot be restrained but breaks into rapturous applause. Tonight. organist and silent film score composer Clark Wilson will command the Mighty Mo. Wilson gives a brief history of the silent film score and returns to his console. The Mo descends halfway to the basement, the curtain rises, and the film hits the screen.
Before I purchased my tickets, there was one thing that I had to be sure of. Several days before the event, I made a call to Fox’s main office with a question. Would we be watching film or video? I have the movie at home on video and I wasn’t going to pay to watch a digital video picture that I could watch at home. I was assured that this would be a film presentation.
There’s something about black & white film that color could never match. Color will never be as crisp and sharp as a black & white presentation. The picture was beautiful! The score was wonderful! The audience laughed and cheered all 1830 of them! Buster is sitting on the cow-catcher of his engine and holding a crosstie. He sees another tie in his path and hurls his tie at the offending tie knocking it from the rails. The audience again broke into cheers as though the man himself was there. As Keaton informs the Southern Army that they are in for a surprise attack, we see the Confederates spring into action. And then, the surprise of surprises, the audience went wild!
All too soon Buster gets the girl, the organ music swells, and the picture fades to black. Now the audience is on its feet. The applause is deafening. The Mighty Mo rises from its pit and pitch of the applause rises again. A spotlight falls on Clark Wilson who has now been playing for 72 minutes. He bows to the audience. I didn’t time the ovation but it lasted for several minutes. Wow! What a picture!
There was one man present that I had to meet. Joe Patton was in the Fox Theater balcony. Melanie and I climbed to the balcony where I had to wait my turn to meet him. In a moment I shook his hand and reminded him that we had met some 30 years earlier. I had made an appointment with him to pick his brain when I was doing the Save the Bradley Theater project. Joe had headed the Save the Fox project and I wanted the benefit of his wisdom. He asked me how my project went. I told him that we saved the theater from the wrecking ball and had actually operated it for 5 months as a classic theater. He seemed pleased. Our meeting was brief. The Fox became his life and the Bradley still haunts me.
We stayed in the balcony for a few more moments admiring the architecture when we were joined by my youngest daughter and her boyfriend who were also there.
“Boy daddy, if they made movies like that today, I’d be in the theater every weekend!” she said.
As we left the Fox Theater dream palace I knew there would never make movies like that again. Hollywood tells us that we want a steady diet of sex and violence. 1830 people came out on a Tuesday night to watch a black & white silent movie. Could Hollywood be wrong? Yet it was more than a movie. It was an evening of entertainment the likes of which only our grandparents knew. Today’s audiences don’t know about a pre-movie sing along with organ accompaniment. They are ignorant of the opulent movie palaces that set the mood even before the picture hits the screen. They only know the cracker-box theaters of today that boast “stadium seating” and offer little more than popcorn and huge subwoofers.
Orson Wells said that “The General” was possibly the best movie ever made. I have to agree.