Friday, July 19, 2024

Whatever Wednesday: ‘Buster Keaton Rides Again’

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Buster Keaton Rides Again is a behind-the-scenes documentary of one of Keaton’s last films, The RailrodderThe Railrodder is a not-so-subtle 24-minute travelogue ad produced by the National Film Board for Canada for tourists hoping to visit the great white north. But the documentary is more than just another behind-the-scenes look at one of the silver screen’s most impactful talents in his golden years.

John Spotton captures a rare and beautiful thing, Buster Keaton at work. Buster Keaton Rides Again contains rare footage of the silent film icon making a movie. Oh sure, The Railrodder is written and directed by Gerald Potterton, but Spotton’s documentary shows that while Buster is uncredited, he and Potterton worked together.

buster keaton rides again
Buster Keaton talking to Gerald Potterton, director of The Railrodder.

The documentary is narrated by Michael Kane and shot in black and white, though The Railrodder is in color. The documentary also acts as a sort of biography and an examination of Keaton’s legacy. The thing about silent film history is how much of it is lost or sometimes falls through the cracks. I know a lot about Keaton, but somehow I didn’t know he survived three train wrecks and five hotel fires. This is trivia, of course, but it adds to the looming question when watching Keaton’s films of “How did Buster Keaton not die?!”

Still, watching Keaton work is only part of the wonder. The other aspect is just watching Buster interact with the crew, his fans, and his wife. Eleanor Keaton may be a Californian, but she matches Buster’s midwestern Kansas stubbornness pound for pound. Eleanor divulges little facts about Buster in a way that feels less like gossip and more like she’s venting to a neighbor.

For instance, we learn that Buster hates crowds. He feels trapped if there are too many people and starts to mumble. To compound matters, his hearing isn’t good. Eleanor tells us that often after an interview, Buster will turn to her and say, “I didn’t hear half of what that person said.” 

Buster and Eleanor on set.

We can hear Eleanor roll her eyes. Not because she is unsympathetic but because she has told Buster time and time again if he can’t hear the person, ask them to speak up. “This is no great detriment to your male virility or anything else. But he seems to be ashamed of it. And, of course, he hasn’t heard properly since 1918. You’d think he’d be used to it by now.”

Buster Keaton Rides Again is a vital piece of cinematic history. Spotton gives us a glimpse behind the façade of Keaton the legend and also the chance to see him work in real-time. Even his ability to problem solve doesn’t seem to have waned in his old age.

At one point while filming The Railrodder, Keaton and Potterton run into a hurdle. There’s a gag involving Buster on a rail car converted into a duck blind with Buster with a shotgun. He doesn’t fire the gun until he’s reached the tunnel opening. The scene cuts to the other side of the tunnel with workers scattering, followed by Buster’s little rail car covered in bushes with his saucer-like eyes and pork-pie hat peering out.

It’s a great gag. But the problem is all the rail workers onsite are Italian and don’t speak English or French. Potterton and the crew try to figure out how to communicate to the workers the gag. Buster, however, jumps in and takes over. He gives every worker a number and assigns them a place to stop; he communicates so the workers can understand. Potterton nervously points out that the workers will likely stop in their places. Buster’s peers through the camera lens, “It’s the only way.”

buster keaton rides again
Buster Keaton and the crew setting up a shot in The Railrodder.

Spotton, who also shot the documentary, captures not just Buster’s way of working but how he expresses himself. Keaton is one of those rare talents who seems to have been born with a camera in his brain. The way he can visualize a gag and explain how it needs to be shot and edited is a marvel. But Spotton also never misses a chance to capture Buster listening or thinking, giving us a Buster in the moment free of acting and putting on a show.

Buster Keaton Rides Again isn’t an in-depth exposé, but it’s something more special than that. It’s an artifact of both its time and a record of one of the greatest filmmakers of his time doing something we usually only hear about: making movies. Something that both Spotton and Potterton seem to understand.

Potterton is a young lad, but by 1965, he had already been nominated for two Oscars for his work in short films. Still, there’s a moment in Buster Keaton Rides Again when he approaches Buster with an idea for a gag in The Railrodder. I imagine that he’s happy just to have been nominated, but whoever the winners were didn’t get to pitch a gag to Buster Keaton and have him call it “good” and agree to shoot it. Unfortunately, Spotton doesn’t capture Potterton’s face when this happens, Buster is the star after all, but you can feel his giddiness from offscreen. 

buster keaton rides again
Buster and hsi wife Eleanor taking a break from filming.

Of all the things we see in Buster Keaton Rides Again, far and away, the best thing is the brief but profoundly human moment of Buster and Eleanor watching a ballgame in his train car. Potterton watches nearby, bemused and confused both by the Keatons and the sport. Not surprising since Baseball Canada was founded in 1964, the Expos wouldn’t come along until the late 60s, and the Blue Jays wouldn’t be playing until the late seventies.

But seeing Buster and his wife yell at the umpire, root for the batter, and whoop and holler when the ball is in play gives us a more of a complete picture, not of the legend, but the man. Eleanor and Buster’s relationship is the core of Buster Rides Again, with Eleanor both fussing and playing Devil’s advocate whenever he and Potterton get upset.

For example, we see a moment where they changed a gag on Buster that involved him fighting a large map as the wind blows it into his face just as he crosses over a railroad bridge. Potterton has changed the gag because he’s scared it’s too dangerous. Buster can’t believe the audacity. Eleanor tries to get Buster to understand where Potterton is coming from. 

Buster sits there fuming, playing solitaire, and to his credit, acknowledges he understands why Potterton is cautious. Still, it’s the change to the gag that upsets him as well as being treated with kids’ gloves. “That is not dangerous; it’s child’s play, for the love of Mike.” But, Buster goes on, “In my own backyard with a swimming pool, I take more chances than that.”

In the end, after filming the “safe” gag, they realize Buster was right. So they film it Buster’s way, the gag works, and Buster is fine. But it’s hard to blame Potterton for wanting to play it safe while a legend of American cinema visits his country to shoot a tourist film. No one wants to be known as the director who killed Buster Keaton after life, and the silent film era of Hollywood, failed so many times.

buster keaton rides again
Buster at a party during production.

At one point, Spotton interviews some kids who have come to meet Buster. Spotton points out Buster has always appealed to children. I think it’s because he has a way of being straightforward in his filming; the gag is never overly intellectual. On the one hand, it’s often a sleight of hand, an illusion or trick of the camera, but on the other, there’s a simplicity to it that can reach across generations. 

“Keaton has always been suspicious of the genteel, the sophisticated, the intellectual,” the narrator intones. “Learned critics can write about his profound humor. He takes pride in the fact that he can still score a direct hit with a custard pie at twenty-seven feet.” 

Buster Keaton’s life is filled with tragedies and success, and Buster Keaton Rides Again only scratches the surface of the great silent film star. Yet, despite its short runtime, it’s not even an hour-long, I found myself discovering not Buster Keaton, the silent film legend, or even the fading star. Instead, Spotton’s camera captures a glance at the part of Keaton that is ineffable.

Images courtesy of National Film Board of Canada

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