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BUSTER KEATON RIDES AGAIN/THE RAILRODDER

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Buster Keaton
Directors:  John Spotton, Gerald Potterton
Audio:  Dolby Mono
Video:  Standard 1.33:1
Studio:  Image Entertainment
Features:  None
Length:  85 Minutes total
Release Date:  February 6, 2001

Films:                   
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 begin?”

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 misty.

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 could it?

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 treat.

Video:
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!

Audio:
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)

Nothing.

Summary:

Buster Keaton was, in my mind, the greatest film comic of all time, and this double feature package from Image proves that even with age, he was still the master of physical comedy.  Enjoy this short film that put him back on the railroad track and back into his silent comedy element, then marvel at the documentary that offers wonderfully rare glimpses of a true master at work.