Did you know that Buster Keaton once made a film with the guy who directed Heavy Metal? And did you know that it was produced by the National Film Board of Canada to promote tourism? And did you know that it’s the most glorious 25 minutes of a man riding a rail speeder ever?? Such a film does exist, and it’s called The Railrodder. And you should absolutely watch it.
The Railroader has a simple premise: Keaton plays a British man so inspired by a newspaper ad that he jumps into the Thames, swims the entire Atlantic, and reemerges on the shores of Canada (in a scene that I can’t prove was stolen by Monty Python, but you know, the show did come out the following year). From there, he hops on a railway speeder and effortlessly rides across the country. The speeder never runs out of fuel, and the storage compartment might be a portal to another dimension. When he finally gets to the west coast, a Japanese man walks out of the Pacific, hops on the speeder, and takes off toward the Atlantic. Keaton shrugs and begins the long walk home.
But seriously, there’s so much to love about this film. The use of the landscape is brilliant; the jokes are perfectly deadpan. What really makes this film special, though, is that it marks the beginning of one iconic filmmaker’s career while giving a happy ending to another’s.
Buster Keaton was born in 1895 to a family of vaudeville actors. As soon as he could stand, they incorporated him into the show, tossing him back and forth like giggling sack of potatoes. He was trained from birth to perform the stunts that would someday make him a legend, and developed his deadpan expression on the stage as well. He became fascinated with moving pictures, especially the mechanics of the camera. And so he moved to Hollywood, where he rose to prominence during the silent era. He was writing, directing, and starring in his own films, putting out an average of six films per year. He was truly the Richard Linklater of his time. By the mid 1920’s, he was one of the most successful comedians in the world. And then he made The General.
Today, The General is widely regarded as a masterpiece — it shows up on every “greatest films of all time” list you’d actually care to look at. Upon its release, however, it received mixed reviews and worse — it bombed at the box office. Keaton lost all creative control over his films and was forced to sign a bad contract with MGM. To make matters worse, the sound era had arrived. Many of his contemporaries (like Chaplin) survived the transition. However, Keaton’s on-screen persona relied completely on deadpan, emotionless reaction — it’s what made his brand of comedy work. So when he was forced to take up speaking roles (and often poorly written ones), audiences lost interest. He then went through a rocky divorce and spiraled into alcoholism.
It seemed like Buster Keaton was doomed to a tragic, Sunset Boulevard end (a film he cameo’d in!) — but lucky for all of us the television came along. His films aired to a whole new generation of viewers and soon-to-be-hipsters, and his popularity was on a slow but steady uptick. He took up small acting roles and made talkshow appearances, and managed to stay busy. He also married his third and final wife, Eleanor Norris, in a union that lasted 26 years. Once again, he was enjoying the spotlight.
Meanwhile, Gerald Potterton’s career was just getting started. The London-born animator had two Oscar noms under his belt and a sweet gig at the National Film Board of Canada, but Yellow Submarine and Heavy Metal were still years away. In the mid-60’s, he was tasked with directing a film that would make Canada look like an acceptable place for vacation. So he turned to one of his favorite films for inspiration. Guess what it was?? Yup — it was The General. He asked Keaton to star, Keaton said yes, and that was that.
The Railrodder would be Keaton’s penultimate film. The legendary actor-director died of lung cancer the following year. His wife and doctor never told him about the diagnosis, wanting him to enjoy the last days of his life. And indeed he did. In a documentary about The Railrodder, Eleanor largely credits his happiness with working again, saying it made him feel appreciated. And that, ladies and gents, is the coolest part about this film: Buster Keaton gets to be the same guy he always was. He didn’t have to change to stay relevant; he merely adapted. He took advantage of new opportunities in a world that had changed so drastically, and he found a way to reach new audiences. Even today, his act proves to be timeless. Potterton’s role is complementary: he was still finding his identity as a filmmaker, but he did so with grace, maturity, and a delightful British humor that would make the Queen proud, had he not run off to Canada. The experience undoubtedly primed him for the years to come, and the cult classics he would usher into the world like screeching, kaleidoscopic demons.
This film will put a smile on your face. And if it doesn’t, I’ll buy you some Tim Horton’s.*
*I’m too broke to actually do this. Sorry.