Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
Just months before his death, the silent film star starred in a gag-filled project for the Construction Safety Association of Ontario.
Sick and just months away from death, Buster Keaton flew to Toronto in October 1965 to make one last film.
The 70-year-old brought his deadpan facial expressions and flawless stunt work over the border for 10 days to make The Scribe, a 30-minute safety film for the Construction Safety Association of Ontario.
In it, The Great Stone Face plays a newspaper office janitor, who, as you’d expect from Keaton, doesn’t speak. After a reporter on his way out the door tells the janitor to take his calls, the phone rings. It’s the paper’s hard-nosed editor, and he needs a construction-safety story STAT.
Keaton, after stumbling with the receiver (which manages to travel through his pants), accepts the assignment without uttering a word. The janitor puts on a classic reporter’s hat and heads over to a downtown construction site, where hijinks ensue.
The film’s director, John Sebert, told the Toronto Star in 2013 that Keaton immediately came to mind for the project since “he spent most of his life making accidents happen.” Even though Sebert admits years later that The Scribe “could be better,” the gags are still great. Keaton’s character marches around with a stolen safety poster, pointing out various violations to workers while simultaneously putting them at risk (and enraging them) though his own bumbling.
Keaton was a heavy smoker, and the actor had relentless coughing fits on set, Sebert recalls in a 1995 Keaton biography. Still, he “looked fine and physically seemed quite agile.” According to the Star, he even found enough energy and free time during the Toronto trip to appear on a Canadian television quiz show.
Keaton died of lung cancer on February 1, 1966.