Film Review: The Great Buster: A Celebration

Peter Bogdanovich’s new documentary about Buster Keaton is a welcome diversion, even if it offers few fresh insights into the artist or the man.
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As its title suggests, The Great Buster: A Celebration is unabashedly hagiographic. In the case of silent-film comedian Buster Keaton (1895-1966), however, that isn’t such a bad thing: He really was great at what he did and seeing clips from his films should be an enjoyable experience for both fans and newcomers to his work. If Buster Keaton’s name alone doesn’t attract the expected followers to this tribute, perhaps the all-star lineup of guest commentators will help.

It has been three decades since the airing of Kevin Brownlow and David Gill’s three-part TV chronicle, Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow (1987), and one might think The Great Buster: A Celebration would include extra-special assets to justify its place alongside that more comprehensive British production. Instead, Bogdanovich creates a Reader’s Digest version of the same material, something better geared for viewers with limited attention spans. Essentially the same story is recounted, but with shorter clips from the Keaton films and brief, snappy comments from the array of talking heads.

Like A Hard Act to Follow, The Great Buster attempts a chronological structure, though it places a heavy emphasis on Keaton’s self-directed works from the 1920s and saves these excerpts from Sherlock Jr. (1924), The Navigator (1924), The General (1926), College (1927), etc. for the final third of the 100-minute running time, well after Keaton’s “fall” and “comeback” stages are already thoroughly told. It is an odd approach at best to tout his greatest works after more than an hour of life story has passed—including Keaton’s bittersweet final days in the mid-1960s. Journalistically, Bogdanovich “buries the lede,” though in showbiz terms, at least, one could say he saves the best for last.

In addition to directing, Bogdanovich narrates Keaton’s tale, sounding less jocular than usual, and thankfully refraining from inserting his trademark impersonations of famous personalities. Other than making a few errors—like mispronouncing the name of Keaton’s birthplace (Piqua, Kansas)—the director capably guides us through the narrative and his selection of speakers is wide-ranging. There are questionable choices— “comic” French Stewart and former Bogdanovich star and paramour Cybill Shephard (one of the few women represented)—but he also includes several genuine Keaton friends and collaborators—Dick Van Dyke, James Karen, Norman Lloyd. Among those influenced by Keaton, the variety is inventive: from Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks to Werner Herzog and Johnny Knoxville! Sadly, these familiar faces are lucky if they get to utter more than a sentence at a time.

While the clips from Keaton’s one- and two-reelers are scanty and nearly all the titles where he ceded artistic control are uniformly and unfairly maligned, the concluding section of The Great Buster—with Keaton-as-auteur—contains relatively greater depth, providing background information and finally letting the work speak (or “show”) for itself. This portion—and some of the earlier bits—prove that Keaton possessed both a deft imagination and an otherworldly ability to execute concepts at once funny, forward-thinking, and physically perilous (without the help of doubles or special effects).

Notfilm, Ross Lipman’s 2016 documentary, focused almost singularly on the bizarre 1965 Keaton-Samuel Beckett collaboration called Film, flippantly dismissed here by Bogdanovich, but Notfilm somehow conveyed more heart and substance about Keaton himself. Ironically, working with Keaton’s own material, Bodganovich is too busy praising the artist to bother saying anything novel about him.