If you had to name some of the pantheon of silent movie comics, without thinking about it too hard you might say Charlie Chaplin, or Laurel & Hardy. Harold Lloyd might also feature in there, his profile perhaps helped by the showings of Harold Lloyd’s World Of Comedy on teatime BBC2 into the 1980s. However, the forgotten man in some ways out of all the big stars of that silent era seems to be Joseph Frank Keaton, better known as Buster.
Although undoubtedly someone with name recognition, it does feel in some ways that he’s been unfairly overlooked in comparison to his counterparts. Chaplin’s The Little Tramp character is genuinely iconic, and Laurel & Hardy seem to be hardy (no pun intended) perennials, thanks not only to their being able to make the transition over into talkies, but also biopic Stan & Ollie helping keep them in the limelight for modern audiences.
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Whither Buster Keaton? Certainly no less fêted than any of his contemporaries, with awards and accolades aplenty, and both known and loved amongst film critics and filmmakers alike, yet somehow still seeming to be treated as an ‘also ran’ or second tier silent era star, in terms of recognition with the public. It’s not as though he didn’t have his own distinctive style – the pork pie hat, and that implacable deadpan look, which earned him the nickname ‘The Great Stone Face’.
Keaton also had an inventive, noteworthy visual style, doing so many potentially dangerous stunts himself, risking life and limb pursuing laughs in a way which only Harold Lloyd came even remotely close. It feels like a reappraisal is long overdue, which is what Peter Bogdanovich’s documentary feature, The Great Buster: A Celebration, is here to do. It gives us a closer look at Keaton’s work, as well as allowing some insight into Keaton the man, without seeking in any way to sensationalise the troubles he faced at times.
Bogdanovich is probably best known for The Last Picture Show, What’s Up, Doc?, or Paper Moon. However, in the 1950s and 1960s, he was not only an ardent moviegoer, but also a critic and writer about the cinema, and he penned a book about director John Ford. As such, Bogdanovich is well versed in the history of the form, as well as his antecedents in the industry, so he seems to be the perfect choice in that sense to bring to the screen what’s effectively a love letter to Keaton and his work.
It isn’t the first time a documentary has been made about Keaton: in 1987, Buster Keaton: A Hard Act To Follow, a three-part series by Thames Television, aired on British and American screens. It’s certainly a useful companion piece to this feature, having the benefit of extra time to show more of Keaton’s work, as well as having the support of Keaton’s widow. However, this 102 minute self-contained piece manages to still pack in plenty about Keaton without making you feel as if you’ve been shortchanged in any way.
One big advantage of The Great Buster is that the footage used of Keaton’s work has never looked better, having been lovingly and painstakingly restored by Cohen Film Classics, with the images being as sharp as you’re ever likely to be able to see them; it also breaks down that potential barrier of perceiving silent movies as being low-res, scratched and filled with jerky movements, an unrelatable fragment of a bygone age as far as modern audiences might otherwise be concerned.
What shines through is Keaton’s genius at crafting gags which were timed to sheer perfection, and immaculately delivered, with so many examples on hand of the lengths to which he went in order to get the joke just right. One such instance is the now-infamous spectacle from Steamboat Bill, Jr. of Keaton standing in place as the frontage of a house falls away, seemingly threatening to crush him, only for him to be narrowly missed as his position means that an open window passes harmlessly over him.
Bogdanovich shows us how many times such a seemingly simple yet exactingly precise and potentially fatal spectacle has been reused by other people since its debut in 1928, in addition to what can happen if it goes wrong, courtesy of a clip from Jackass, with Johnny Knoxville on hand to explain firsthand. This is just one of many examples in the feature where contemporary figures from entertainment and film are on hand to sing the praises of Keaton, and espouse his consummate skill.
Rather surprisingly, Jon Watts – director of Spider-Man: Homecoming and Spider-Man: Far From Home – explains how much Keaton’s physicality came into play when telling us about a character when his face was pure blankness, and how this fed into what he did with putting Spider-Man on screen, whose visage was literally an expressionless mask. It’s eye-opening to find how much Keaton still bleeds into what people are going today, and Bogdanovich really makes effective use of such examples.
It’s also nice to see how someone like Mel Brooks shows how much of an influence Keaton has been on his own movies, and kudos must be given to Bogdanovich for his left field choice of a clip from Spaceballs – of all things – to illustrate the point. Seeing everyone from Bill Hader to Quentin Tarantino and Dick Van Dyke (who says he was told by Keaton how to fall properly) demonstrating such a deep, abiding love and admiration for Keaton gives us incentive and encouragement to check out his work, adding to what’s already present in the clips we see.
In a recent article, Bogdanovich said that he “tried to include members of the audience who didn’t know anything about him to begin with”, and that people in that category who’d seen The Great Buster left wanting to watch more of Keaton’s work. On that basis alone, Bogdanovich can consider this to be an unqualified success, as it goes a long way towards redressing the balance in Keaton’s favour, and making sure people give him full credit for a truly astonishing body of work.