In September of 1964, Hollywood icon Buster Keaton arrived at Canada’s East Coast to start filming a 25-minute travelogue for the National Film Board. Produced with the full co-operation of the Canadian National Railroad, the film would see him travel from coast to coast on a railway-track speeder.
Keaton was a star of Hollywood’s silent era, directing and starring in dozens of short comedy films from 1917 onwards. He later moved to features, which were huge box office hits. These included his masterpiece The General where he got to “play” with real life locomotives. All of Keaton’s films featured the actor performing incredibly complicated stunts, which were as astounding as they were hilarious. Following the advent of sound, his career took a turn for the worse, and he found himself starring in a string of mediocre films in which he had very little creative control.
When television appeared in the 1950s, Keaton’s films were rediscovered by a new generation, and suddenly his career was back on track. In 1964, director Gerald Potterton was going to work at the NFB in Montreal when he saw a railway track speeder on the railroad tracks. He immediately thought of Keaton’s The General and wasted no time in contacting Keaton, who agreed to star in the NFB film simply because it was about his hobby, railroads, and he would get to ride the rails in Canada.
Shooting began on the 5th of September near Halifax, where Keaton was filmed coming out of the ocean onto dry land. This gag, while very funny, was tough on him, as the water was freezing cold. Potterton shot the film chronologically traveling from East to West. Most of the gags were improvised along the way with Keaton. The film was conceived as a colour travelogue short destined for the cinema screens of Canada and the world. Filming was done on 35 mm, but without sound. It was decided to shoot in the style of a silent film of old, complete with music and sound effects, but no dialogue. Potterton later said that the noise of the speeder and other trains would have made location dialogue shooting next to impossible. Interestingly, Potterton, who had mostly made animated films up to that time, wanted to shoot Keaton in live action and add him to an all-animated film. Thankfully this idea was dropped in favour of an all live-action film.
Shooting the film in Canada was extra special for Keaton, as he hadn’t visited the country in 48 years – since the time when he toured with his family’s vaudeville act prior to moving to Hollywood.
Accompanying Keaton on his Canadian assignment was his third wife Eleanor, who watched over him day and night. Keaton turned 69 during the production, but insisted on doing his own stunts. He would often work these out with Potterton the night before. They would be inspired by whatever the men happened to see along the way. The sequence with Keaton opening the impossibly large map while crossing over a railway trestle caused concern to all. Keaton insisted on doing this stunt himself much to the chagrin of Potterton and the crew. The pair and the film crew travelled throughout the country in a special railway car complete with chef and steward.
A second film crew followed Keaton and made the one-hour documentary Buster Keaton Rides Again, a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film. This documentary would be shown on Canadian television while The Railrodder was shown on the nation’s screens.
The filming took six weeks in all. The crew had to endure scheduled trains passing on the main line, which slowed down filming considerably, and cold temperatures. Keaton took it all in stride and would retire at the end of the day to watch the World Series on television in his railway car. The sequence that opens the film was shot in London with a stunt double. Keaton was later matted in.
Press coverage during the shoot was comprehensive. From coast to coast, newspapers sang the praises of Keaton. Some towns honoured him and his wife with film screenings and dinners throughout his journey in Canada.
The film was released theatrically by Columbia pictures in October 1965, playing with Gilles Carle’s La vie heureuse de Léopold Z in Quebec. In English Canada it would play with a variety of Hollywood films. Reviews, unfortunately were mixed. Most reviewers thought the film too simplistic and not very funny. They felt it should have sacrificed the scenery for more Keaton.
The film was also distributed theatrically in the USA and throughout Europe, including the UK, Portugal, France, Belgium, Finland, Sweden and the USSR. Since there was no dialogue, it was very easy to sell in other language markets. It would also play on television around the world, notably in Italy, Argentina, Poland, Yugoslavia, Germany and South Africa. It enjoyed a second life on television in Canada and later on home video. Sadly Keaton would only work on a couple more films before passing away in February of 1966, just when The Railrodder was gracing the nation’s screens.
I never fail to smile when I see this film. Keaton is as spry as he was in his heyday. Some of the gags are hilarious. I especially enjoy Keaton stopping in the middle of the Prairies to enjoy his afternoon tea while a pack of bison looks on. The Railrodder remains the work of a comic genius, who could wring a laugh out of any prop on hand. As much as I admire Potterton for making it, the film is Keaton’s and will always remain his. May he forever ride the great railroad in the sky.