BUSTER KEATON RIDES AGAIN (1965) is a black and white documentary about
the silent screen legend who is remembered both as a great
comedian and a talented director. Today, BUSTER KEATON RIDES
AGAIN would probably be called THE MAKING OF THE RAILRODDER,
filmed while Keaton, then 69 years old, was working on a color
short by that name
directed by Gerald Potterton. But it is not really a film about how The Railrodder was
made, but how an active comic mind still worked even after six decades
The premise of The Railrodder was simple: Keaton travels across Canada in a railway handcar. It was meant to promote Canadian tourism, but also leave plenty of room for Keaton to improvise railroad and travel gags along the way. Although The Railrodder is credited to Potterton as writer and director, BUSTER KEATON RIDES AGAIN makes it clear that Keaton himself had a big hand in the making of the short. Time and again, we see Keaton working out the details and timing of specific gags, expressing disappointment and frustration when things don't work out, and explaining the difference between one element of a gag and another. Although we never see him get behind the camera, he makes his own vision clear to the director, down to specific camera shots.
Keaton's comedy was the most scientifically methodical of all the great silent clowns, and in one scene in which he describes the plot of the 1928 Laurel and Hardy short Leave 'Em Laughing, we can see the admiration and near envy he had for that duo, who could work from the simplest of premises. Laurel, whose mind was as sharp and active as Keaton's, believed in improvisation on the set, whereas Keaton seemed to want every minute detail worked out.
In the documentary, we see
fascinated and perturbed by almost anything - the play
by play minutia of a baseball game, the tuning of a guitar, the
intimate strategies of a friendly bridge game, the table settings of an
upcoming honorary function. Everything that came across
life was open to thorough examination, explanation and rearrangement.
Even at 69 years old, he couldn't stop exploring everything
see if there was any way to improve it.
The heart of BUSTER KEATON RIDES AGAIN is a scene where Potterton thinks of one gag Keaton could do over a large suspension bridge, while Keaton thinks of a different one. Both gags are good and Keaton's idea of combining them is accepted by the director, who then switches Keaton's gag for one of his own on the day of shooting. Potterton believes Keaton's gag - riding over the high bridge while tangled up in an oversized map - is too dangerous. Keaton's comments in these scenes are fascinating for any fan of silent comedy, as he reveals his own theories on comedy while arguing, politely but firmly, with the director:
the whole center of the gag, is that long shot of the bridge."
KEATON: "Oh, no, the bridge is not your gag, the bridge is only suspense - a thrill. There's no gag to the bridge at all, doesn't mean a goddamn thing."
Later, in his private railway car, Keaton begins fuming, telling wife Eleanor how the scene as shot is useless. His anger and agitated frustration are palpable as he complains that his gag is not dangerous but "child's play... I've done worse things in my sleep." Not surprisingly, Keaton gets his way.
Though the finished film The Railrodder is too lengthy even at 25 minutes and contains too many gags that fall flat thanks to Potterton's poor camera placement (even the above-mentioned map gag doesn't pay off as it should have), BUSTER KEATON RIDES AGAIN is an absorbing portrait of an artist as an old yet still vital man, 40 years past his golden age and only a year away from his death, still tinkering with, fine-tuning, and working out the details of the craft he helped invent, film comedy. - JB