Mar 21, 2018

Streaming Diary: Buster Keaton, Christopher Plummer and More Stream Free Via The National Film Board of Canada

The National Film Board of Canada is a wondrous organization, giving opportunities to innovative, talented filmmakers and preserving decades of fascinating work. Many of the films supported by the group are available to stream on its official website, several for free (some limited to residents of Canada) and some for a membership fee. 

I have spent many jawdropping hours browsing this site. It is an amazing resource and a great place for classic film fans to find new treasures. Here are some of my favorite titles available for free viewing (all titles link to the film's streaming page):

The Railrodder (1965)

It is delightfully poetic that one of Buster Keaton's last films would be silent. This travelogue, meant to boost Canadian tourism, is also one of the comic's best late career performances. He plays an Englishman who jumps into the Thames and walks across the Atlantic Ocean floor to the shores of Canada. There he hops on railway track speeder and races across the country, taking in the sights with that familiar stone face and air of nonchalant efficiency. It's a gorgeous, peaceful film, full of lovely scenery and the silent charms of one of the best movie comedians, still in great form and executing clever gags. He even gets to wear that legendary pork pie hat again.

A great companion piece to The Railrodder, this documentary about the making of the film, with a little biography mixed in, amusingly runs twice as long as the short. In addition to showing lots of behind-the-scenes action, it's a revealing document of Keaton in his later years, where he had finally found some contentment and still had a fully intact sense of humor. He comes off as a genuinely nice guy and is just as entertaining being himself as he ever was in any part he played. It's great fun to watch him with his wife Eleanor, who lovingly, but briskly berates him for tuning his ukulele strings too low and later shouts at a television baseball game with her equally enthusiastic husband.

This short, narrated and directed by Anne Claire Poirier, and set in the milieu of the Shakespearean Theater in Stratford, Ontario, does not feature as much of Christopher Plummer as the title suggests, but nevertheless offers a few interesting glimpses of the actor in his early years. It's fun to watch him sit in front of his dressing room mirror, attaching an enormous nose for a performance of Cyrano de Bergerac and priceless to observe him smoking a cigarette while chatting with a large, black crow perched on his shoulder. Stage director Michael Langham and fellow thespians Kate Reid, Len Birman, and Martha Henry also make an appearance. Plummer's daughter Amanda, who was six-years-old at the time, also appears briefly, early in the film.

Plummer is also interviewed in The Performer (1959), a documentary about Canadian artists available on the site (he appears around 37:00). In an funny, acidic moment, he is taken to task by the interviewer for leaving Canada for Broadway after raving about the theater scene in his home country. Don't miss the fantastic scene featuring pianist Oscar Peterson and his combo.

Norman McLaren drawing directly on film, 1944 (Image Source)

Experimental filmmaker Norman McLaren is perhaps most famous for his Academy Award-winning short Neighbours (1952), but there is so much more to this boundary-pushing artist. He was a masterful abstract animator and stop motion artist, in addition to creating works that brilliantly captured the spirit of dancers and other performance artists. 

There are several McLaren works on the site. Recommended: the moody dance piece Pas de deux (1968), playful animations Boogie-Doodle (1941) and Synchromy (1971), and the slapstick shorts Opening Speech (1961, starring the filmmaker himself) and my favorite McLaren film: A Chairy Tale (1957), which features a chair animated by Evelyn Lambart and the music of Ravi Shankar and Chatur Lal.

Claude Jutra in A Chairy Tale (1957)

There's so much more to explore on the NFB site, from short and feature length films, to documentaries and animation. If you like these films, I recommend taking the time to browse the rest of the site.

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