Buster Keaton’s final word

John Sebert, left, and Buster Keaton, on the construction site of MacDonald Block during filming of The Scribe. “He didn’t think the script was funny,” says Sebert. “He’d been making these industrial films for years, but he was still dedicated to the gags. He still wanted to make people laugh.”

This piece was originally published by the Toronto Star on March 5, 2013. It appears here in a slightly edited form.

Buster Keaton, who rose to fame in the 1920s, directed and starred in some of the most famous films of the silent era. The General (1926) is ranked 34th on Sight and Sound magazine’s list of the 50 greatest films of all time.

Nearly four decades later, during a chilly October in 1965, Keaton was in Toronto, appearing in The Scribe , an industrial safety film commissioned by the Construction Safety Association of Ontario.

It would be his last film. On Feb. 1, 1966, Keaton died of lung cancer.

The short, directed by John Sebert, features Keaton as a would-be reporter visiting a construction site, press pass tucked into the band of his famous pork-pie hat. It appears as a special feature in Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray release of Buster Keaton’s College (1927), available this week.

Until he was contacted by the Star, Sebert was unaware that his first directorial effort was coming out. “I think it’s wonderful,” he says on the phone from Naples, Fla. “I still have my reservations about the film. It could be a lot better, but over the years, all sorts of people have wanted to look at it.”

A life-long cinema fan — who often saw Keaton’s films when presented by the Toronto Film Society — Sebert was a renowned photographer and long-time contributor to Chatelaine and various catalogues, including Eaton’s, when he was offered the chance to direct a film.

When a 30-minute documentary on construction safety was proposed, Sebert immediately thought of Keaton, whose slapstick was constructed with engineering-like precision. “He’d be wonderful because he spent most of his life making accidents happen,” he adds with a laugh.

While physically in good shape — performing most of the sight gags and running along the site — Keaton was in poor health, often falling into uncontrollable coughing fits. “We flew to San Francisco to meet with him and set everything up. When we got there, he said: ‘My wife doesn’t want me to do it, but I really want to do it.’”

The shoot lasted 10 days. While other locations are visible, the majority of the production takes place on the construction site of MacDonald Block at Bay and Wellesley. “Whoever granted us permission must’ve been a Buster fan, because they made it very easy for us to shoot in this location.” The site was completed in 1968. Sebert would direct other films, as well as nearly 1,000 television commercials.

Keaton, whose career declined in the 1930s after losing creative control of his films when he signed to MGM, appeared in several industrial films throughout the years, and his stone-faced appearance was a regular fixture in television commercials, like this Ford van advertisement, also released in 1966.

Chris Seguin, a local silent film historian, applauds Kino for releasing the short because it was likely only ever shown in union halls or during training sessions. “Without companies like Kino and private collectors, these films would be lost. Even the CSAO disposed of their only 16-millimetre print once they could transfer it to VHS — and they did a lousy job of it at that. These films were considered disposable, but they’re a major part of an artist’s legacy.”

The elusive short, shot on 16mm film, was acquired on Ebay by Kino Lorber producer Bret Wood. A print also exists at Library and Archives Canada.

While in town, Keaton also filmed his last television appearance, as a guest on the CBC game show Flashback. One of the panelists was Elwy Yost, the former host of TVO’s Saturday Night at the Movieswho died in 2011 .

COMMENTS

  • I came across a 16mm copy of this film at my office – an insurance company that likely had viewings of it for their clients. How much do you think a 16mm copy of this would sell for now?

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