50 years ago today, Buster Keaton left us.
He was aged just 70, a relatively young age by our modern standards. However, he sure as hell packed a lot in to those seven decades. From roughhouse boy comedian to apprentice screen comic, star, writer and director; through years of crushing hardship, painful recovery, stoic resilience and final, well-earned resurgence as TV star and rediscovered genius, Buster Keaton never did anything by halves.
In his autobiography, Keaton closes with the wish to make it to 100:
I intend to do it. For who would not wish to live 100 years in a world where so many people remember with gratitude and affection a little frozen-faced man who made them laugh a bit long years ago when they and I were young?
It would have been easy to imagine him doing it. Full of boundless energy until the very end of his final illness, Buster left us entirely too early. Despite his problems over the years, he had weathered the advancing Twentieth Century well. The same technocratic spirit that led him to films, “to tear that camera to pieces”, and produce the technical brilliance of his films, saw him unafraid of television and the brave new world of the 1960s. Sure, work like the ‘Beach Party’ films was beneath him, but we shouldn’t feel sorry for Buster. This work wasn’t just paying the bills, it was indicative of his admirable desire to live in the present. Eleanor Keaton, for instance, told stories of how he found many of his silent contemporaries tedious company, stuck as they were in the old days, and abhorred their lack of knowledge about modern sensations such as The Beatles.
His rejection of old age and living in the past are seen best in two films from the late Autumn of his career: THE RAILRODDER, a silent, open-air rail travelogue of Canada, and its documentary companion piece, ‘BUSTER KEATON RIDES AGAIN’. Together, they present a beautiful summation of Buster the comedian and Buster the real man.
Here is Buster the railroad engineer, speeding along with the same determination as in ‘THE GENERAL’. With the same eternal calm, here is Buster the classic silhouette scanning the horizon hand to brow. Here too is Buster the adventurer, zooming off into the unknown; Buster the film-maker, working out gags and discussing the technicalities of shooting; Buster the great stone face, his stillness matched by vast swathes of Canadian wilderness. Even Buster the human comes along, signing autographs for kids, relaxing with Eleanor and laughing as he recalls scenes from Laurel & Hardy films. And, at age 69, here is Buster the stuntman, speeding across a high trestle, wrapped in a huge map. I never get tired of watching these films, and they’re given an added poignancy knowing how little time he had left.
Who knows what Keaton might have continued doing had he lived into the 70s, with appreciation of his work at an all time high? Of course, a question that has no answer. In its place, we have the precious memories of all that he did achieve in his turbulent, brilliant, inspiring life.
I couldn’t let today pass without writing some kind of tribute to Buster. Still, words aren’t his ideal tribute. As we know, he was himself a man of few words. Instead, his images and films will forever be his epitaph. Whether placid and still at the centre of a cyclone, or staring into the camera from the front of a moving train; whether blinking quizzically into silver light, or scanning the horizon, or grasping at vans or streetcars… Or running, always running… Here’s Buster the way we remember, and love him:
Thanks for the laughs, and the inspiration, Buster.