A Tribute to Comedic Genius Buster Keaton

A Tribute to Comedic Genius Buster Keaton

A Tribute to Comedic Genius Buster Keaton

It has been exactly 50 years since the world lost the great Buster Keaton. I view him as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time and a comedic genius. I wanted to write this tribute to say that he is far from forgotten, and here at the NFB we consider ourselves blessed to have produced a film with him.

I first discovered Buster Keaton at Concordia University when I saw his short film Cops (1922). In a compact 22 minutes, he manages to get the entire Los Angeles Police force to chase him, with hilarious results. I then saw The General (1926), which most people consider to be his masterpiece. I was hooked for life.

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Imagine how excited I was when I started working at the NFB and discovered that Keaton had made a 24-minute travelogue with us in 1965. The Railrodder was released around the world to great acclaim and popularity (it was shown in over 50 countries in its first 5 years). It is shot like a silent film and contains no dialogue. Keaton performs several gags and stunts flawlessly as he makes his way from coast to coast across Canada on a railway speeder (amazing, considering he was already 69 years old at the time). This film continues to be a favourite in Canada and around the world and is guaranteed to put a smile on your face. (You can read more about the production of the film in this blog post I wrote several years ago.)

The Railrodder, Gerald Potterton, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

During the shooting of The Railrodder, a second crew followed Keaton, director Gerald Potterton and his crew to make a behind-the-scenes documentary. The resultant film, Buster Keaton Rides Again, was broadcast on Canadian television during The Railrodder’s theatrical release. It contains some amazing moments of Keaton at work and at rest. The scenes with his wife Eleanor are wonderful. You can see that they are thoroughly enjoying their Canadian experience. You can also see him singing and playing the ukulele. The documentary contains sequences from several of Keaton’s classic films and tells the story of his rise to fame and subsequent fall before his resurgence in the 1950s.

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Gerald Potterton told me that Buster Keaton was one of the loveliest people he had ever met and that working with him was an absolute pleasure. There are several priceless sequences in the documentary showing Potterton and Keaton setting up gags and simply enjoying the experience of making this film together.

I invite you to watch this candid view of a great cinema icon at work. We will never forget you, Buster Keaton. Thank you for gracing us with your presence and making a film at the NFB.

Buster Keaton Rides Again, John Spotton, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

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  1. Reg Hartt, I didn’t know that Jackie Gleason improvised his role on “The Honeymooners.” It was my father’s favourite TV show so everyone in our family watched it. Thank you for that fascinating insight! Is there a film or video record of your stage tribute to Keaton? Where did you perform it?

    — Karen Marginson,
  2. I knew nothing of Buster Keaton when I first saw THE RAILRODDER. After seeing it I learned everything I could. In 1981 for several months I performed a 2 1/2 hour dramatic improvisation out of Buster’s life. As Buster never rehearsed I had to do it with rehearsal. Jane Jacobs was in the audience the first night. Her husband and daughter came the second night. Robert Jacobs told me, “Jane said the piece was excellent and you were excellent.” Buster learned by observing the stars of his youth. I learned by observing Buster. BUSTER KEATON RIDES AGAIN is the best film I have ever seen on the process of film making. Watching Potterton and Keaton exchange ideas and build gags is better than five years in any film school on this planet. Keaton’s THE GENERAL was condemned when it was first released because Keaton had dared to use war and death as a background for comedy. A few years THE GENERAL was chosen as the single best motion picture between 1920 and 1930. THE RAILRODDER is the only film done in the pure Keaton style since THE CAMERAMAN. It is ESSENTIAL viewing. The NFB did Buster proud. These are two films I never tire of. They make me regret that the NFB never did a film with Charles Chaplin.

    1. Small error there. Buster Keaton improvised all of his silent films. He never rehearsed. To create a proper dramatic improvisation out of Keaton’s life I had to do it without rehearsal. I aimed for 2 1/2 hours. I started it at 8pm the first night. I finished it exactly 2 1/2 hours later. Jackie Gleason revered Keaton. Like Keaton, Gleason never rehearsed. When you see those HONEYMOONERS episodes everyone but Gleason rehearsed. He allowed that to accommodate Audrey Meadows. Gleason arrived on set only when it was time for the cameras to roll. Frank Sinatra as well. Keaton is one of the great Masters. Studying him is like studying Rembrandt. Kudos again to the NFB.

  3. Hey,

    That first picture looks like the NFB Camera. I should go look for this…

    -Steve

    — Steve Halle,
    1. Thanks for keeping these classics alive!

      — Gordon Martin,

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