BUSTER KEATON RIDES AGAIN/THE RAILRODDER
Review by Michael Jacobson
Directors: John Spotton, Gerald Potterton
Audio: Dolby Mono
Video: Standard 1.33:1
Studio: Image Entertainment
Length: 85 Minutes total
Release Date: February 6, 2001
Buster Keaton Rides Again ***1/2
The Railrodder ***1/2
In 1965, Buster Keaton was
enjoying a renaissance of sorts. After
spending years convinced he wouldn't be remembered, a Life magazine
article by film critic James Agee highlighted the achievements of the great
silent film comedians, including Buster. Not
long after that, a businessman named Raymond Rohauer would supervise the
transfer of all of his old movies from nitrate films to modern safety stock, and
then take his greatest picture The General on a world tour with Buster
coming along for the ride.
One afternoon during that tour,
in his New York hotel room, Buster met up with a young man with a proposal.
The man was Canadian filmmaker Gerald Potterton, and his idea was to make
a new short film. As he recalled in a later interview, he spilled the idea to
the comic legend: a movie called The
Railrodder, about Buster traveling across Canada on a little railway speeder
car, and the mishaps that would happen along the way.
Buster responded, “Sounds crazy…I'll do it!”.
He then walked to his hotel window, opened it, and shouted, “QUIET!”
to all of New York city. Then he
calmly closed the window, turned back to Potterton and said, “When do we
It's no mystery why the subject
intrigued him. Buster's love of
trains was highly evident in his early work, from the great cross country trip
on a ramshackle railroad in Our Hospitality to the unforgettable chase at
the heart of The General. His
home was a maze of model train tracks laid everywhere, including his
refrigerator. Buster and The
Railrodder were a match made in heaven.
At age 70, Buster hadn't lost
his sense of timing or comedy genius, and the film that best illustrates that is
the documentary of Potterton's movie, Buster Keaton Rides Again.
Shot in black and white, director John Spotton and a small crew
followed Buster around during the making of The Railrodder, capturing him
in the act of working out his famous gags, as well as showing some of the public
and private moments of his life. For
anyone who's a fan of Buster, this film is an absolute treat.
It shows a master craftsman doing
what he does best: the construction
of gags. Though not receiving any
behind the scenes credit, Keaton fans will recognize his signature stylings in The
Railrodder, while the documentary shows him creating many of the short
film's memorable sequences. In
particular, we see him adamantly fight for a gag that the crew wants to cut for
safety reasons: Keaton wants to zip
across a very high trestle bridge completely enveloped in a giant folding map,
unable to see. One false step could
mean a nasty death, but this is Buster, who charmingly claims, “I do more
dangerous things in my sleep.” In
the end, the crew trusts him, and as he had done all his life, he pulled off an
unforgettable image without a miscue.
At other times, we see Buster
slip quietly back into his one time role of director, particularly when a group
of non-English speaking men are having difficulty with a tunnel gag, and
Potterton can't quite get his wishes across.
Buster steps in and makes each one understand what he needs them to do to
make the gag work, and eventually the scene is successfully captured.
The documentary intercuts the
current project with bits and pieces of Buster's classic films and light
touches upon his life story…nothing terribly deep, but as good as one might
expect for an hour long film. Some
of the other parts outside the making of the movie were priceless, from
Buster's stories about Laurel and Hardy to his birthday party (“I'm not
much of a hand at public speaking,” he offers, “but to show me heart's in
the right place, I'll fight any man in the room.”)
My personal favorite was the small group of children let in to his
private railroad car to get his autograph.
Buster had reached a point in his life where he honestly believed he
wouldn't be remembered. To see
these little kids awestruck by this comedy pioneer actually made me a little
And, like most good
documentaries, it records moments that the filmmakers couldn't have possibly
known were significant. Buster, in
the middle of one gag description, is overtaken by a severe coughing fit.
Those around him attributed it to severe bronchitis.
It would be learned in the near future that Buster had inoperable lung
cancer. When he made this movie, he didn't have much time left in
his remarkable life.
As for The Railrodder itself,
it's a delightful throwback to Buster's silent days. Made without dialogue (only expressive music and sound
effects), Buster hops his speeder and travels from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
Along the way, he makes a proper tea, washes his face, has a rather funny
goose hunting episode, and the mishap with the map and the bridge, among other
incidents. The photography is often
fast moving and beautiful, bringing the Canadian landscape to vibrant life, but
never overshadowing the star. How
Buster Keaton was truly one-of-a-kind, and even at age 70
with failing health, he puts his full heart, soul and body into his work, and
time seems to almost stand still when he's on screen. For his fans, this double billing represents a irresistible
Buster Keaton Rides Again ***
The Railrodder ****
Buster Keaton Rides
Again looks quite good for an old
black and white film with no real production values. As a documentary, there really are no instances you can point
to in terms of lighting or scene construction, but for the most part, the
photography renders exceptionally well, with sharp images and no distracting
grain or compression. There are
small instances of telltale nicks and spots, but these are few and far between,
and hardly a distraction.
The Railrodder, however,
was a real eye opener. I have some
bits and pieces from this film on VHS, but to see this DVD was a pleasant shock: it looks terrific. The
photography, as mentioned, is beautiful, and it renders nearly perfectly here,
with good strong colors and sharp images. The
state of the film is exemplary, too…very, very little in the way of noticeable
aging signs. I wouldn't have
believed this little 35 year old short film could have looked so good.
Thank you, Image!
Buster Keaton Rides Again **1/2
The Railrodder ***1/2
For what it is, the audio for the documentary film is
perfectly fine: a simple, no-frills
mono track that captures the dialogue with no problems.
There are slight bits of telltale noise during quieter scenes, but
nothing to really be concerned about. There
is very little dynamic range at play, because, frankly, the program doesn't
call for it. A perfectly adequate listen with no real complaints.
The Railrodder, also in mono, scores higher because
there is more range to the audio, and the music, which is very expressive, is
extremely clear and offers moments of strong punch to accentuate the visuals.
Again, a very commendable effort.
Features (zero stars)