For a man whom Louis B. Meyer thought was a stupid jester and a drunken flop, and whose career supposedly ended in 1935, Buster Keaton proved remarkably resilient. After years in the cellar, Keaton came back after a dual scene with fellow silent comic master Charlie Chaplin in LIMELIGHT. The rediscovery of his films like THE GENERAL, THE NAVIGATOR, SHERLOCK JR., STEAMBOAT BILL JR., and THE CAMERAMAN brought a whole new generation to look him up. Then (unlike other great comedians of the silent and early sound period) he embraced the new medium of television to discuss making comedy and to do old routines or new ones on shows like THE TWILIGHT ZONE and CANDID CAMERA. A dreadful movie with Donald O'Connor playing Keaton (which redid some of Buster's great routines) at least paid a large sum to Buster to set himself and his wife up for the rest of their lives. By 1960 he was reappearing in movies, some of which (A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD) became classics, while others (the "Beach Blanket" films) he graced by his presence.
In 1965 he was able to appear in the last two great shorts of his career. They were FILM by Samuel Becket and THE RAILRODDER. They represented his last really first rate work in film, the former as a philosophical work and the latter as pure comedy-travelogue. THE RAILRODDER also allowed Keaton to return to a favorite subject of his best films - trains. His masterpiece THE GENERAL was about an actual incident where a train in Georgia was stolen by Union agents. The chase and counter-chase remain the best in comedy films. But before THE GENERAL Buster had looked at early railroading (circa 1835 - 1840) in OUR HOSPITALITY. There was also a brief sequence regarding trains in GO WEST. And (when forced by MGM into being a gag writer) Keaton's work with the Marx Brothers in their GO WEST included the demolition of a passenger train.
The National Film Board of Canada produced THE RAILRODDER, a nearly half hour movie, to advertise the beauties of Canada's countryside to visitors. The plot is quite simple. Buster is living in London, and reads an advertisement advocating visiting Canada. He leaves England, and when he arrives in Canada he takes a mechanical repair car across the country's railway systems, seeing the major cities of the east (they show Ottawa for example) and then the scenery of the west (the Rockies, the plains, the buffaloes, Canadian geese) all the way to the Pacific. At the conclusion Buster reaches the Pacific and is admiring the other great ocean when he loses his mechanical car. He accepts the loss and starts walking along the track headed back to the Atlantic coast.
The bare bones of the film plot does not show how Keaton improved the entire film by reawakening his old ideas. There are outtakes of Keaton with the film crew discussing various ideas, and Keaton (while not sharp or nasty - not like Groucho Marx was towards him on GO WEST) is critical. He tells the crew that some of the ideas are just not funny. But he does discuss them. It's refreshing to see how he did create on his best films.
Examples here: There is a side tool box on the car that he keeps opening up that contains all kinds of things that just shouldn't all be there! It has dishes, bathing utensils, fur coats (for the colder parts of Canada), blankets, even a newspaper! We never see Buster stop the machine at a town and buy anything - in fact we are quite sure from the start that Buster has no money with him. Everything he will need is in that machine.
His fine touch never falters. At one point he stops the car at a siding on the plains, and takes some hot water from a boiler and makes a small cup of tea for himself. He is drinking from a rather fine piece of bone china (on an electrified hand car!), with raised pinkie (he is genteel), and notes a bison staring at him. Buster looks at the bison but as it is grazing he is not perturbed. Instead, he is sipping his tea when he hears thunder and feels rain. He holds his hand out to feel the drops. Then he takes the cup's saucer and covers the cup's top with it, opening it enough to take some sips. He will not allow his cup of heated water to be "polluted" by the fresh cold water from the heavens!
Another good moment is when he struggles to photograph a magnificent panoramic view of the Rockies from a trestle. The camera is a box one and it keeps collapsing. Finally he is ready to snap the picture. All the while the car has been moving while he is doing this. At the end, just as he is snapping the picture the car enters a darkened tunnel!
THE RAILRODDER is full of these wonderful moments - and is well worth catching. It was Buster's last explosion of his own comic vision of the world, just a year before he died.
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