THE GREAT BUSTER: A CELEBRATION / CERT: UNRATED / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: PETER BOGDANOVICH / STARRING: BUSTER KEATON, MEL BROOKS, JOHNNY KNOXVILLE, QUENTIN TARANTINO / RELEASE DATE: 20TH MARCH
Veteran director Peter Bogdanovich (Paper Moon, What’s Up Doc?) has created a love letter to Buster Keaton with a documentary that details his life and highlights his contribution to modern cinema. What's great about this celebration of the silent film star is that the majority of people know snippets about him but not his actual career trajectory or what made him great. Luckily, we get a well-balanced mix of talking heads and loads of great footage from Buster’s film and later TV appearances, in a sometimes sad but fascinating tale of early Hollywood.
The Great Buster begins with footage of Frank Capra on a talk show, discussing the brilliance and ultimate downfall of Keaton and highlighting the invention of sound and the creation of cartoons as the death of silent comedians. This acts as a fitting prologue to his life and career, as we are then treated to his timeline, beginning life as Joseph Frank Keaton, born into a family of successful vaudeville actors. He was quickly absorbed into the act, becoming the ‘Three Keatons’ with Buster - supposedly given his nickname by Harry Houdini for being good at taking pratfalls - the star of the show. Bogdanovich produces some great artwork and newspaper cuttings for this section of the documentary.
Buster then decided to become a solo act but, after becoming friends with silent actor Fatty Arbuckle in New York, he was asked to watch him make a movie, and the young Buster knew he had found his true calling. This is an interesting view of early filmmaking, as the main studios were in New York but quickly moved to South California due to the space and improved daylight, before the area was officially referred to as ‘Hollywood’. As Fatty Arbuckle got embroiled in scandal (he was later cleared of the manslaughter of Virginia Rappe, but his career never recovered), Keaton took over the independent studio, writing and directing his most famous films, The General and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (the falling house stunt being emulated so many times, most famously by Jackie Chan, who credits his greatest stunts to Buster). This is described by Bogdanovich as Keaton’s golden period, and he peppers the documentary with some fantastic clips from the films, with stunts so outlandish, they don’t seem real. The documentary will return to these classic films, considered by Buster Keaton enthusiasts as his greatest works, as part of its conclusion.
Of course, what goes up must come down, and we are told by Dick Van Dyke and a family friend that Keaton signed with MGM and lost control of his own career, acting in inferior films and struggling with sound. He began drinking and got divorced, eventually having a nervous breakdown. The Great Buster does a good job of following his late career, with loads of great footage of his appearance on game shows, advertisements and an episode of This Is Your Life. In terms of modern influences, Johnny Knoxville tells us how Jackass was influenced by the great man’s stunt work and Quentin Tarantino appreciates his masculinity and work as a director. The final 15 minutes, examining his films in more detail, may put the casual viewer off but will be greatly appreciated by students of film. As described by our talking heads, Buster Keaton’s films are timeless. For obvious reasons, we will never see this type of extraordinary stunt work and comedy woven together in such a way, a time capsule that is hugely enjoyable to open from time to time.