Buster’s Last Stand

In the 1950s and 60s, Buster Keaton found a nice sideline making ‘Industrial’ films. These varied from company training films to promotional advertisements, and even one (1952’s PARADISE FOR BUSTER) that was a pure comedy to be shown as a treat for employees of John Deere.

In October 1965, shortly after his 70th birthday, Keaton travelled to Canada for another industrial assignment. He didn’t know it then, but it would turn out to be his last appearance before a camera.

Some years earlier, he had been involved with an abortive film called TEN GIRLS AGO. Among the journalists covering that project was editorial photographer John Sebert; now Sebert found himself helming an industrial safety film for the Construction Safety Association of Ontario. The acquaintance was renewed and Keaton had a job.

THE SCRIBE is very obviously an instructional film, its purpose being to hammer home company safety policy ‐ “16 steps to LIVE!”. Buster’s job is to brighten proceedings by demonstrating how flouting each step can cause accidents, in his inimitable manner.

Given the set-up, it’s not fair to hold the film to the same standards of your average Keaton comedy. Certainly, nobody could call THE SCRIBE a forgotten classic, but for what it is, it’s not half bad.

Buster plays a janitor at a newspaper office, who promotes himself to journalist when a call comes in to investigate industrial safety at a building site.

Once there, he finds a list of safe working guidance rules, and wanders around the building site trying to enforce them, but usually making matters worse. It’s a pretty efficient way of getting the message across, but more importantly allows Keaton to indulge in little sight gag vignettes. Sebert is obviously a fan of Keaton’s comedy, and lets him do his thing. Some are better than others; Sebert sometimes bites off more than he can chew, and sequences of Buster being hoisted aloft on a crane or dangling from a rope are unconvincing, especially as a lanky, much younger double is used. Some gags are also sabotaged by the fact that the rest of the cast are genuine construction workers… as actors, they’re very good builders!

Much better are the simple visual gags: Buster’s constant loss of his hard hat, or his fascination with an ominous red button. Best of all, there are a handful of throwaway gags that don’t serve any health and safety purpose at all ‐ a falling door gag gives just a hint of STEAMBOAT BILL, JR, and Buster even uses a ladder gag from Laurel and Hardy’s THE FINISHING TOUCH. These are surely on-set additions by Buster himself, proof that his comic mind was active right until the end.

You can tell that all isn’t well with him though. As well as the use of a double, scenes of Buster running show his movements much slower than usual. With hindsight, we now know that he was terminally ill, and making this film at all was quite an achievement.

If THE SCRIBE isn’t the wonderful final hurrah that THE RAILRODDER had been, there certainly could be a less fitting final role. 46 years earlier, Buster’s first starring short had been ONE WEEK, based around house construction. Now, in 1965, with the wooden house changed to a skyscraper, here he was, still pottering about a building site, making gags with planks and doors and cement. There’s something quite touching about Buster persevering in the brave new world of the atomic age, as plans were made to put a man on the moon, and as The Beatles were recording RUBBER SOUL. It was a totally different era, but after all he’d been through in his career, he was still in demand and still funny.

The final scenes see him re-enacting one of his earliest comic routines, a floor scrubbing scene from THE BELL BOY (1918). While he is immersed in this, the ‘End’ title appears on the screen. Buster looks up and taps it away; a nice playfully cinematic final gag for a comedian who had always stretched the possibilities of film for comedy.

Take a look at THE SCRIBE here:

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