Silent Sundays: Buster Keaton, June 24
A Toronto connection for the master of comedy
by Eric Veillette
Silent Sundays returns with Buster Keaton's The Cameraman on Sunday, June 24, with live accompaniment by William O'Meara. In Toronto, Keaton's films always played to great fanfare, but very few people know this city was host to his final film appearance.
John Sebert directed Buster in his final film, The Scribe, an industrial short made for the Construction Safety Association of Ontario.
Sebert also wrote the book on neighbourhood cinemas called The Nabes, which is packed with historic photos and includes The Revue.
In 1920, Keaton worked on a series of shorts at Paramount with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. He was soon given his own production unit, releasing films like Sherlock Jr. and Three Ages. Although The General is now recognized as perhaps Keaton’s finest achievement, it was unpopular when it was released and proved a financial failure.
Keaton soon went to MGM, the assembly-line of movie studios. The Cameraman was Keaton's first film for MGM, a period the comedian would later call the "worst mistake of my career." Within a year he would lose creative control over his productions. Later films such as Spite Marriage, Free and Easy, and Parlour, Bedroom and Bath, although containing a few good gags, lack the meticulous, fine-tuned chaos of his earlier independent efforts.
In 1965, he made his final silent film, The Railrodder, for the National Film Board of Canada. He then came to Toronto to make The Scribe.
As a first-time director, Sebert was in awe of Keaton. Unlike the suits at MGM, he let the great Stone-Face loose: “You didn't direct Buster too much,” he said to Marion Meade in her biography of Keaton.
Although 70 years old at the time, Keaton still performed his own stunts, although they relied more on timing than physical strength.
Sebert was also shocked to see Keaton smoking multiple packs of cigarettes per day. “He always had a cigarette in his hand,” he told Meade. “Then he'd go into these coughing fits that lasted four or five minutes. The racking that poor guy went through was terrible.”
Keaton passed away in 1966, at a time when his films were being rediscovered by a new generation. But thanks to the efforts of film preservationists, The Revue audience can appreciate the genius of what Roger Ebert claims is “arguably, the greatest actor-director in the history of the movies.”