Comedy · Documentary

Stealing the Scen(ery) from Buster Keaton

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Buster Keaton knits a fashionable sweater while riding through the Canadian Rockies. Image: shelleysdavies.com

Buster Keaton may have been one of the most coordinated people on earth.

His early film career is testament to his athleticism and physical sense of humour. The brilliant 1926 film, The General, for example, has you holding your breath as Keaton performs stunts on moving trains. Sometimes you can hardly watch because of the danger, but he’s so nimble and funny you can’t not watch.

One of Keaton’s last film roles was also performed on a moving train – or, more accurately, a railway speeder.

In the 1965 silent short, The Railrodder, Keaton is a Londoner who sees a newspaper ad promoting Canadian tourism, and immediately decides to travel to the Great White North. When he arrives on Canada’s Atlantic shore, he discovers two things: (1) it’s 3,900 miles to the Pacific Ocean; and (2) there’s an abandoned railway speeder which he uses to get across that 3900-mile stretch.

The Railrodder is a rather strange, but delightful homage to Keaton’s silent film prowess and to the importance of the railroad in Canadian history. Keaton, who turned 69(!) during filming, busies himself while riding the speeder across Canada. He cooks scrambled eggs, does a bit of “housework”, tries to hunt geese. All of these are done while the speeder is in motion.

There are quieter moments, too. In one scene, Keaton stops the speeder in the middle of the Prairies while he prissily sets out a formal tea service and sips, unhurriedly, from a china cup.

All of these activities are made possible by the presence of a mysterious orange box on the speeder. This box seems to house an entire props department including, but not limited to, a rifle, the aforementioned tea service, and a large buffalo-skin coat to wear whilst riding through the mountains.

The Railrodder is determined to show us how progressive Canada was in the mid 1960s. Scenes unfailingly include power lines, manufacturing plants, and bridges – lots of bridges. To someone who hasn’t been to Canada, it might look as though you couldn’t spit without hitting a bridge.

Despite these unsightly signs of progress, Canada looks beautiful and majestic and interesting. Which creates an unusual dilemma.

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The well-dressed Keaton surveys the Prairies. Image: Will Has a Blog

Keaton is billed as the star of the show, and rightfully so. He’s funny, engaging and utterly entertaining. (Click here for an outtake prank.) But he has to work to steal the scene from the main character: Canada.

In our opinion (not that we’re biased), some of the most impressive Canadian scenery is left out of the film. Yet, the varied landscapes – from ocean to prairie to mountain – make you appreciate how big this place is. (Canada is the second largest nation, area-wise, in the world.)

There’s absolutely no one else besides Buster Keaton you’d want riding a speeder across Canada. But when he’s in the Rockies, for instance, you hardly notice him. The mountains look so crisp and inviting it’s easy to get lost in the scenery.

The Railrodder was produced by the National Film Board of Canada, and every Canadian Of A Certain Age has seen it at least once. We adore this film because it embraces two things we admire: Buster Keaton’s talent and our magnificent country.

The Railrodder: starring Buster Keaton. Directed by Gerald Potterton (and the uncredited Buster Keaton & John Spotton). Written by Gerald Potterton (and the uncredited Buster Keaton). The National Film Board of Canada, 1965, Colour, 25 mins.

This post is part of the O Canada Blogathon hosted by yours truly and the über-Canadian Speakeasy. Click HERE for a list of participants.

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20 thoughts on “Stealing the Scen(ery) from Buster Keaton

  1. My one-quarter-Canadian heart is loving this blogathon! And thank you for this lovely piece on Buster. I also enjoyed the clip you linked to — I love the looks on people’s faces when they remember Buster. Just total awe and love. Thank you again!!

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  2. This was a very big deal for “us of a certain age,” you’re right. I remember loving this look at an older Buster when his face was a landscape in itself, but mainly for the scenery and the cool feeling of it being done here! Great work co hostess!

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  3. “He cooks scrambled eggs, does a bit of ‘housework’, tries to hunt geese. All of these are done while the speeder is in motion.” –That line alone would have been enough to get me to watch it! I’ve only seen his early work–how fun this would be to see after The General. Thank you for a great review and such a fun blogathon! Leah

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  4. I had the good fortune to see The General followed by the Railrodder at a screening in Montreal the previous summer, and both were brilliant, although I probably enjoyed the Railrodder more, due to Keaton’s crazy imagination and unshakeable straight face. Plus the gorgeous scenery. Great review on a very deserving film.

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    1. Get out! Both in one night? AND on the big screen? Nice going!

      While working on this post I wondered how the two might compare if a person saw them together, and I’m glad to see The Railrodder stood up well.

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  5. I would love to see this just to see the scenery of Canada! What a fun, creative way the national film board took to show appreciation and national pride in your country as well as all it has to offer. The part where you said Buster cooks eggs, and does a bit of housework must have been so funny as well as when he has tea. It is really nice that Canadians share the viewing of this film and have such a fondness for it and pride in your country.

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    1. This is a crazy film, but it’s really interesting. Buster Keaton is a gem and he doesn’t seem to let his age get in the way. Yes, a lot of Canadians have a soft spot for this film – I’m one of them! 🙂

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  6. I too have only seen Keaton’s early work but this looks like a gem! The images you included really capture the essence of Keaton, although I know he’s Canadian there’s a little bit of British eccentricity in there too (promise I’m not trying to steal him!) and for that reason I’ve always felt a really strong affinity with him.
    Thank you for co-hosting such a great event, I have learnt so much from it!

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  7. I’d LOVE to ride across Canada with Buster Keaton!
    I wasn’t aware of this film until I read your post, but now I found it online. I can’t wait to see Buster once again with trains – and with the incredible Canadian landscape.
    Thanks for this amazing blogathon!
    Kisses!
    Le

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  8. I recall seeing a travelogue in the early 1980s. It used the same theme but the film, being more recent, was much higher quality. The scenery was the best and showed Canada at its best. I’d love to see it again.

    Liked by 1 person

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