Adding sound to a silent film that has been listed in the Sight & Sound Critics Top Ten Poll and named Buster Keaton’s best is an ambitious endeavor. “The General” is crafted in such a way that in addition to needing no sound, it needs little written dialogue to get its comedy across. Even modern viewers can laugh at the plentiful gags, comical caricatures and fantastical story line of the 1927 film.
Alloy Orchestra attempts to enhance “The General” by adding musical scores with their “rack of junk” percussion and synthesizers. Perhaps sound-loving modern viewers appreciate Alloy’s lively soundtrack simply because it adds sound to the uncomfortable silence of a theater, but it adds little else to the experience.
For the most part, the musical accompaniment to “The General” just fades into the background as the viewer gets caught up in Keaton’s antics as Johnnie Gray and the spirited train chase that comprises most of the film. Indeed, when the viewer periodically finds the chase to be slightly monotonous, Alloy Orchestra recognizes this monotony with the rhythmic theme they keep up throughout most of the chase scenes. When a group of Northern soldiers attempt to clear the tracks, the score is zany and mocking as the incompetent soldiers continue their work. Percussion is on cue whenever Keaton gets hit in the head, but beyond these few examples, the action of the film overshadows any attempt at sound enhancement.
The film’s plot revolves around a Southern railroad engineer’s (Keaton) search for and rescue of his two loves: his train called The General and his girl Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack), who is from Northern enemy territory. In the process, he learns valuable military secrets and, of course, becomes an unlikely hero. Keaton, famous for his deadpan face, clumsily but charmingly goes about his character’s mission with mishaps that provide ample opportunity for silly, slapstick humor. The special effects, though probably impressive by 1927 standards, also add to the comedy of the unlikely adventure.
While Alloy Orchestra’s accompaniment does not add much to the film’s already rich action, it does not detract from it either. On its own, the music is unique and lively, and the three-man orchestra should be applauded for their endeavor. Adding sound to silence is a challenge, and perhaps by making blend in, they have succeeded in providing the film with an authentic soundtrack.