Throughout his seventy years, Buster Keaton utilized his slapstick brilliance and deadpan stare to become one of the greatest and most ingenious silent film comedians ever. Appearing on the stage with his vaudevillian parents for the first time as an eleven-month-old, Keaton was a born performer. Keaton created some of the most iconic comedic bits of all time and some of the finest films of the 1920s, only to quickly be forgotten with the advent of sound and a bad deal with MGM. Near the end of his life, Keaton found a resurgence through constant TV appearances and film cameos, which thankfully revitalized interest in his cinematic masterpieces.
Over a century after Keaton’s first appearance on film, in the Fatty Arbuckle film, The Butcher Boy, filmmaker and critic Peter Bogdanovich creates another opportunity to reevaluate the work of Keaton with The Great Buster: A Tribute. In Bogdanovich’s thorough and dense, yet wonderfully exploratory dissection of Keaton’s life, the director not only hits the bullet points of Keaton’s fascinating life, but presents ample evidence of Keaton’s genius.
Bogdanovich has plenty of ground to cover, which can at times leave The Great Buster feeling somewhat rushed. Bogdanovich clearly wants to get to Keaton’s 1920’s films, so Keaton’s time in World War I or his eventual mental breakdown are flown by, given a passing mention. However it’s understandable that Bogdanovich can’t focus on every aspect of Keaton’s life, as this topic could easily fill a miniseries.
Bogdanovich shows that much of Keaton’s happiness was dependent on his professional life. Keaton doesn’t hit hard times until he gives up much of his creative freedom in a bad deal with MGM, and his happiness doesn’t seem to return until he marries his third and final wife Eleanor, who helps revitalize his career and put him in the spotlight once more.
Because of this, it makes complete sense just how much time Bogdanovich spends with the actual films. Throughout The Great Buster, Bogdanovich will slow down his rapid-fire history of Keaton in order to show entire sequences from throughout Keaton’s career. This isn’t just an opportunity to show clips from Keaton’s most well-known films, such as The General or Sherlock, Jr., but more obscure films from his troubled MGM days, commercials from the 1960s, or his return to popular culture in beach movies. Bogdanovich doesn’t just want to show the greatest hits, he wants to show the entire span of Keaton’s creative life, and how even in his final works, his joy and ingenuity could still be seen.
However, Bogdanovich does take the final third of the film to focus on Keaton’s ten features between his 1923 parody of Intolerance, Three Ages, and 1928’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. Bogdanovich digs deeper into these films, presenting longer clips of the more famous Keaton films. While these clips will be essential to those not familiar with Keaton’s feature-length films, this is the only section of The Great Buster that drags and feels like an extended greatest hits compilation.
In showcasing the long reach of Keaton’s influence, Bogdanovich has a well-curated group of Keaton lovers to highlight his finest moments, and mention his importance in their current work. Instead of just enlisting the help of film experts, Bogdanovich has Johnny Knoxville discussing how Keaton’s all-in approach to stunts and filmmaking has been important to how he approaches Jackass. Spider-Man: Homecoming director Jon Watts breaks down how Keaton’s expressive face helped him tell Peter Parker’s story when he’s wearing his mask through eye movements. Nick Kroll and Bill Hader marvel at Keaton’s seemingly elastic body and his approach to playing with tone. These interviews are a fantastic glimpse at how long-reaching and important Keaton’s work has been for a century.
When presented an award at the Venice Film Festival, Keaton was shocked that fans still marveled at his accomplishments as a comedian and brilliant, groundbreaking filmmaker. After being forgotten for a large chunk of his career, near the end of it, he was finally being rediscovered and his films appreciated for the works of art they were. With The Great Buster, Keaton would surely be overcome with emotion by Bogdanovich’s look at his life and the compelling documentary that shows him for the genius he truly was.