Timed to coincide with Cohen Media’s restorations of Buster Keaton’s silent features, “The Great Buster: A Celebration” is a by-the-book documentary of the great comedian’s life and career clearly designed as an appetizer before the classic films are reissued. While Peter Bogdanovich’s enthusiasm for his subject is undeniable, in many cases his choice of talking heads remains questionable, unless being told that “Jackass 2” was influenced by the Great Stoneface really furthers an understanding of Keaton’s brilliance. Structured as a straightforward life story followed by an extended coda looking in detail at the features Cohen is restoring, “The Great Buster” can’t hold a candle to the 1987 three-part series “Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow” but will make do as a decent DVD extra.
Long recognized, together with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, as one of the true geniuses of comedy, Keaton’s life is a classic showbiz tale of hard work, great success, and then a painful professional and personal decline before recognition of his unique talents returned. Brought into his parents’ vaudeville act at a tender age, Buster was a pratfall pro long before he wore long pants, which made the transition to slapstick shorts an easy one. Teamed with the great Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle beginning in 1917, Keaton honed his straight-faced persona in a series of two-reelers that showed off his comic agility and expert timing. 1920 saw the release of his brilliant solo short “One Week,” which he co-directed, followed by a group of now classic comedies whose freshness has never faded (though the same can’t be said of some of the clips used here).
From 1923 he directed and starred in features like “Sherlock Jr.,” “The Navigator” and “The General,” masterpieces of inventiveness that will forever top lists of the world’s greatest comedies. However, a deeply unwise decision to sign over creative control to his brother-in-law Joseph Schenck and MGM led to a decline furthered by personal problems, not helped by MGM’s uncertain understanding of how to adapt Buster’s persona to sound. Heavy drinking together with a string of largely unmemorable films sent his career into a tailspin, and only the patience of his last wife Eleanor saw him through to a more fulfilling period and late-life recognition.
For biographical details, Bogdanovich uses scholar James Curtis, who intelligently discusses Keaton’s career, accompanied by a wealth of terrific photos from the comic’s earliest days. Dick Van Dyke is also a welcome presence, enthusiastically chatting about what made Buster unique, yet many of the other interviewees are of arguable usefulness, included for name recognition rather than an understanding of the comic and his films. Such is the case with Quentin Tarantino, who incorrectly says that all other male comedians of the era had the personae of weaklings, or Werner Herzog, intoning in Herzogian style that Keaton “was the essence of cinema.”
Clearly “The Great Buster” is hoping to attract younger audiences, for why else would Bogdanovich include Jon Watts talking about how “Spider-Man: Homecoming” was conceived with Keaton in mind? The parallels are stretched, to put it mildly. It would have been much better to have Bill Irwin, a physical comedian with clear performance links to Keaton, speak more about timing than Richard Lewis, especially when the latter ahistorically states that many of Buster’s gags had never been done before. Silent film comedy is such a rich and relatively unexplored subject, with even geniuses borrowing from each other all the time, that it’s impossible to lay claim to originality: What made Keaton different is that he made everything his own via a combination of hard work and sheer brilliance.
Clips used from the prints Cohen owns look fantastic, though too often sequences aren’t allowed to run through and we get too many choppy gags; for films that Cohen does not own the rights to, visual quality varies. Original music by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra is comfortably in keeping with traditional silent film accompaniment, but using snippets from the “William Tell Overture” or the “Ride of the Valkyries” is just plain wrong.