By Elias Savada.
The breakneck parade of Hollywood celebrities seems endless in Peter Bogdanovich’s love letter to silent film comedian Buster Keaton. It feels like Friends, Romans, and Countrymen are marching before the camera to recount the influences galore that the great actor and filmmaker has had on their lives. Keaton, star of such silent feature classics as Sherlock, Jr., The General, and The Navigator in the mid-1920s (all on AFI’s 100 Greatest Comedies list) has his life and (nicely restored) films unraveled in The Great Buster: A Celebration, piecing together a furious array of appearances that proclaim the genius of one of the greatest film comedians that ever was. Yes, it’s an extended (and always deserved) homage reel, with clips from what seems like every film he made, showcasing a life and career that truly merits such acclaim.
Cinephiles might find this 102-minute Cohen Media Group release a too-short compression of “The Great Stone Face,” as Keaton was known, best known for his physical comedy and deadpan expressions. But the documentary does seem to dot every “i” and cross every “t” for the masses unfamiliar with his work. Parents should consider bringing young children to screenings, to laugh at good old-fashioned humor rather than the dumbed-down flatulence-laden films that pass for comedies these days. Couple it with whatever can be found streaming (Amazon Prime currently offers many of his films, including the 1928 feature Steamboat Bill Jr.) and you might inspire tomorrow’s filmmaker. Most of the pre-1923 works are online because the original versions are in the public domain.
I mention the distributor of the film, a company owned by Charles Cohen (raised in my home town of Harrison, New York), because in 2011 it acquired 19 of Buster’s short films and 10 of his features from the estate of Raymond Rohauer, a film collector with questionable ethical philosophies. Rohauer befriended Keaton in the mid-1950s and wrangled rights to most of the comedian’s output in the 1920-28 period. According to Bogdanovich, “Because Keaton never again regained the independence and freedom that he had in those years, almost all of his subsequent work is disappointing and not up to the standard he set in the ’20s. As a result, I decided to celebrate Buster and not complain too much about the injustices he endured after his golden decade.”
So this tribute by film fan Bogdanovich, best known for such 1970s classics as The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon, saves the best for last. He provides adequate attention to Buster’s early vaudeville career in a family act, when he was a beanbag being tossed about the stage by his parents, to a discovery by another comic actor, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle” in 1917, and the revelatory two-reel films he made from 1920-1923. These, and the silent-era features he made, account for the third act in an entertaining memory of one of yesteryear’s finest filmmakers.
Personal high- and low-lights (alcoholism, busted marriages, nervous breakdown) offer up Buster’s good, bad, and ugly sides that shaped his life and career in the 1930s. These issues were somewhat resolved with the help of his third wife, Eleanor Norris, and the advent of television, which afforded Buster a decades-long job as comic pitchman for such products as Alka-Seltzer, Northwest Orient Airlines, Country Club Malt Lager (“It’s much more than beer.”), Milky Way candy bars, and Smirnoff Vodka. Most of these aren’t in the documentary, but perhaps they’ll make the DVD/Blu-ray as added features. (For now just google Buster Keaton TV Commercials.)
The talking heads that populate the long clip reel includes comedians Mel Brooks, Dick Van Dyke, Carl Reiner, Nick Kroll, and Bill Hader; film/tv historian Leonard Maltin; Jackass stunt performer Johnny Knoxville; directors Quentin Tarantino and Werner Herzog; and actors Cybill Shepard and the late James Karen. The Mont Alto Picture Orchestra, a decades-old, five-piece ensemble that is a favorite at the Buster Keaton Festival in Iola, Kansas, accompanies all of the choice sequences in Buster’s silent screen career.
Bogdanovich, who also wrote the film, knowledgeably narrates with an dutiful air of authority and doting love of the subject. Keaton would have bashfully accepted the filmed accolade (like he did when he received a special Academy Award in 1960) and probably would have offered the documentary-maker one of his pork pie hats (he went through thousands in the course of his career) that Keaton should have trademarked. Buster even wore it in his final screen appearance, the charming 1965 short The Railrodder made for The National Film Board of Canada.
The film is never mournful (although Keaton died too young at age 70 in 1966). The Great Buster: A Celebration is a fine tribute to a legend everyone should remember.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2019 by Centipede Press).