Tuesday, 8 August 2017

On the authenticity of Buster Keaton

I've seen Buster Keaton’s The Railrodder a zillion times. It was the first Buster Keaton movie I saw as a kid and, if I'm lucky, it'll be the last one I see on my deathbed.

And speaking of lucky, a few weeks ago I had the rather insane pleasure of spending the day with the film’s director Gerald Potterton. Together we sat and watched an hour or so worth of outtakes from the shooting of the film, recording our conversation for Cinemuseum’s upcoming blu-ray collection, Blue Collar Buster Keaton. More specifically, these outtakes were culled from the “making of” documentary filmed during production, Buster Keaton Rides Again a close runner up for the zillion views record.

With director Gerald Potterton, April 2017.
Watching the outtakes (and a further hour’s more I set aside) for these films I’d seen again and again and again, I noticed something for the first time. And how oh how had I never seen it before? At no point do we see a double for Buster. No stand-in wearing a porkpie and slapshoes; no stuntman waiting around to do the dangerous stuff. 

But boy, did he ever deserve one. At the beginning of The Railrodder, Buster emerges from the Atlantic Ocean. The scene was shot off the coast of Lawrencetown, Nova Scotia in late September 1964… and I can guarantee that water was beyond freezing. (Trust me, I’ve been in the Canadian Atlantic in July and that was an endurance test.) Yet Buster trudges out of the brutal sea time and time again in infinite variations of the same scene — wearing a straw boater, wearing his trademark porkpie, no hat, jacket on, jacket off — even in his rusty old age, a bit of water isn’t going to stop the little iron man.

Buster emerges from the Atlantic...
...and again.

Now reality is, Buster had come to rely on stuntmen at this point in his life. They’re pretty obvious in A Funny Thing Happened To The Way To The Forum and The Scribe. But that was more to accommodate his four-packs-of-Winstons-a-day ravaged lungs than his ability to face danger or the elements.

Which leads me to a scene in Buster Keaton Rides Again, a pretty contentious one where Buster bickers with director Potterton. Essentially, Potterton has an idea for a gag: Buster’s putt-putt is doomed for a head-on collision with some other speeders over a mile-high trestle bridge.  Potterton even sketches it out for him, but Keaton doesn’t think too much of the gag. (“Getting on it, getting scared, isn’t going to mean anything.”) So he suggests amping it up somehow — let me be engulfed by a giant map caught in the wind. Potterton vetoes it…. it’s too dangerous. 

So they shoot it Potterton’s way. Then Buster goes away and stews about it overnight. He grumbles, he fumes, he bitches to Eleanor about it. (“That is not dangerous, that’s child’s play, for the love of Mike. I do worse things in my sleep than that.”) Then they shoot it Buster’s way.

"I says 'Who suggested the gag?', he says 'You did'. I says 'I generally know what I'm doing.'"

Now when you watch the finished scene, there is absolutely no way you can technically spot that it’s Buster. He’s obscured from the waist up in the giant map. The scene is shot from what seems to be five miles away, so the figure on the scooter is literally a dot. It could have been a double or a dummy for all anybody cared.

Quick. Spot Buster.

So why the battle? Why push so hard for something that really doesn’t matter. For something where nobody — nobody — would know the difference. 

Because Buster would know. And Buster knew the audience would know.

And that’s why, for the love of Mike. 


  1. Brilliant --- Thanks for this

  2. So he smoked Winstons...

    Every article only makes me love our Little Iron Man more.

  3. We owe Gerald Potterton a great debt OF gratitude for the insight that "Buster Keaton Rides Again" gives us into Keaton's thoughts and methods on set and his close relationship with his wise wife Eleanor. Also, the affection and respect he was held in really comes through. Even the ending really hits the target, when Keaton strums on his ukulele singing a risqué song about Jesse James!

    1. I think the debt of gratitude should go to John Spotton, the actual Director, Cameraman, and Editor of BUSTER KEATON RIDES AGAIN, Gerald Potterton was the guy who spent time trying to get Buster to do gags he didn't want to do in THE RAILRODDER. Spotton was the one who realized the importance and opportunity he had to film Buster Keaton making a film and grabbed it while he could, sadly he passed away in 1991 and I do not recall him being interviewed by anyone.

      And forgive me, but Buster sings "Casey Jones", not Jesse James.


    2. Hey Richard! Absolutely, Spotton's 100% oversight (and the foresight to do it) of BK RIDES AGAIN is easily overlooked. He created an amazing profile of the man at precisely the right moment in his life -- when he was busy, prosperous and respected. But it's kind of unfair to say Potterton "spent time trying to get Buster to do gags he didn't want to do" (the trestle is an example of that -- and Potterton actually did draw Keaton a birthday card with Buster saying "Hell, not another cartoon gag") but there was a helluva lot of respect and openness to Buster's contributions -- more than with, say, The Scribe. And it shows in the finished product.