Thinking with some joy about the way Buster Keaton is loved and treasured today, nearly 50 years after his death, I wondered for the briefest moment what he would have made of it. He was sort of a macho guy, or at least it suited him to present himself that way. Would all this adulation have embarrassed him?
This in turn made me think of the charming and extremely perceptive little documentary about the making of "The Railrodder", a promotional short made by the National Film Board of Canada in 1964, entitled "Buster Keaton Rides Again." If you haven't seen it, do seek it out -- it can be found on YouTube, in parts. It's a backstage look at Buster at work. The filmmakers were allowed pretty intimate access, and you get to see Buster inventing gags on the spot, explaining each one to educate the respectful young director. As always seems to have happened, the crew fell in love with Buster, and people just seem to want to be near him. We know now that he was more ill than he realized at the time, but he seems entirely committed to the project and enjoying the shoot, which involved traveling across scenic parts of Canada by train.
There are some very revealing moments, including an argument with the director about the safety of a pretty spectacular stunt. You see Buster meticulously analyzing the stunt, step by step, considering the director's suggestion and rejecting it as weaker than his idea. The director, trying to keep him from doing something that seems dangerous, haplessly promotes his own concept again. Buster is not pleased. "I generally know what I'm doing," he says icily. The director is just trying to protect him, but to no avail -- Buster wins. The stunt is done, and it goes perfectly. Another great scene follows Buster and Eleanor as they are given a an official reception by the mayor of a small town and a greeted by the boys pipe band from the local high school, which he finds quite touching.
What is particularly beautiful to see is his relationship with Eleanor, playing cards (bridge and what looks like cribbage), watching baseball games with passionate interest, backing-and-forthing with each other about everything. Buster's way with any pastime he found worthwhile was precise, thorough analysis; he wanted to know how everything worked, and why, and he obviously respected Eleanor's opinion enough to discuss everything from gags to bridge hands with her. Really, how lucky was Buster to meet Eleanor in the first place, among all the pretty young contract players on the lot, a 20-year-old ingenue on the surface but inside the perfect woman for him -- bright, capable, uncompromising, and forthright. And how smart was Buster to see that in her!
She knew him through and through. At one point in this documentary, having induced him to lie down for a nap after a tiring press conference, Eleanor turns the bedside lamp on so it illuminates his face like a spotlight. "There, that's what you want," she says.
And it is. Keaton had a lot of superficial reserve, partly due to his deafness, partly due to innate good taste -- he would never ask for attention -- but he'd been a star all his life. Center stage was his by right. That's my conclusion from seeing this thoughtful little documentary -- he loved being the center of attention! How wonderful that he was able to experience a second success. And wouldn't he have been happy to be revered as he is today!
So thank you, Eleanor; thank you, Charlie Chaplin, for getting the ball rolling with "Limelight;" thank you to everyone who made Buster's second act happen.
|Buster celebrates his birthday with the crew and friends|