I just watched this 55 minute NFB documentary from 1965 made about the great Buster Keaton filming one of his much later films in Canada entitled THE RAILRODDER. The DVD I had also had that movie to watch, which was decent, but the real jewel was this documentary. It was fascinating seeing Keaton behind the scenes, now as a much older man, one who ridden the proverbial rollercoaster of fame and fortune, divorce, and alcoholism. In many ways, Keaton is but a mere shadow of the silent superstar he was in the 1920s, but you can still see his natural wit and penchant for performance. He was known as the Great Stoneface for his unflinching deadpan expression from his films, and Keaton even in 1965 rarely if ever smiles in public. Is that a symptom of depression, aging, or frustration, or has he become completely the unsmiling Keaton of the silver screen? With him it is hard to decide where the artist stops and where the art begins. And make no mistake, Keaton truly was an artist. Even a staggering 40 years on, he knows exactly what will be funny, how to stage a gag, how to film it. He was a true visionary. Here are three things that might interest you in watching this:
1. Seeing Keaton behind the scenes, and hearing his voice. As well as seeing him as an old man. The interesting thing about discovering directors, actors, or performers of any kind after their death, is being about to watch them grow through the ages, become the superstars they were destined to be, and witness their (sometimes sweet) comedown as their life draws down. Keaton is my favorite silent star, and countless contemporary (especially physical) comedians owe at least something to to him, from Jackie Chan to Cosmo Kramer. But the real treat here for me was to see Keaton on location discussing what gags and how they are going to shoot them as they go along. I've seen lots of old Keaton films from the 1920s, but it was neat and somehow (fittingly) melancholic to see him older and wrinklier. Despite not having the physique of his youth any longer, he still knows how to use his body in a funny way.
2. It was shot in Canada. So, yes it is very cool to see Keaton traversing the country on a CN rail roadster. Keaton is at home on the rails, so many of his films see him involved with mechanical devices and machine and vehicles--especially trains. The narration in the film tells us "If anybody had bothered to ask him what he wanted to be when he grew up he would have said an engineer," and it is so apparent in his understanding of physics and machines. And what better way for Keaton to travel across a country than on the rails--from the Maritimes, through Quebec, Ontario, across the Prairies, through the Rockies, and finally to British Columbia. (Towards the end of the actual film, THE RAILRODDER, we see the Lion's Gate Bridge in the background!)
3. It is a great example of a film made in the glory days of the National Film Board. Oh but to have worked for the NFB in the 1960s. A professor I had at school illustrated the seemingly endless funds the NFB had back then by describing how Hollywood vs the NFB would film a simple gag of a person walking down the sidewalk and slipping on a banana peel. In Hollywood, they would build a sidewalk, write the scene, hire an actor, a stuntman, extras, a whole camera crew, make-up artists, wardrobe people, production assistants, and shoot the scene. An NFB crew would set up a camera on a sidewalk and start rolling the camera until a random passerby dropped a banana peel. It is kind of ridiculous, but did illustrate to me how fortunate one was to be able to work for them and be able to burn through hours of film.
And Bonus thing: You can watch it free online at the NFB website! Among many other landmark films.