The Great Buster: A Celebration

 

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A loving tribute to one of cinema's greatest names.

 
Great Buster - A Celebration, The
 

Documentaries about movie stars and film directors are two a penny, regular features on television and from time to time seen also in the cinema. They are usually enjoyable, yet only rarely exceptional - but it is in the latter group that I would place Peter Bogdanovich's tribute to Buster Keaton. It is pure pleasure. Bogdanovich has always been a fan and is splendidly knowledgeable about his subject. It matters not at all that the format is a standard one that blends together a survey of the life and career with plenty of clips (most of them admirably well preserved) and intersperses that material with fresh interview footage (admirers seen here include two directors, Quentin Tarantino and Werner Herzog).

 

Inevitably the most memorable scenes are the generous extracts from the old films including Keaton's early shorts (many of them amazingly inventive) and the ten classic silent features made between 1923 and 1928 when he had full control of his work. The restraints and restrictions imposed during his subsequent MGM period are well known, as is his fight against alcoholism and the limited opportunities that came his way in his post-war films (he died in 1966). But, if his career is certainly one that went into decline, Bogdanovich finds in the later years many upbeat elements too - his lasting and happy third marriage (to Eleanor Norris), for example, and his popularity on television (some ads from this time confirm that his skills had not withered). Nor is Bogdanovich's thorough preparation without other unexpected rewards. He comes up with extracts from such rarities as The Butcher Boy, which marked Buster's first appearance on screen (that was as early as 1917 but even here the visual quality is good), and The Scribe, a film made by Keaton when he was dying. Even more striking is a glimpse of his first serious portrayal which came in 1954 in The Awakening made for an anthology series presented by Douglas Fairbanks Jr and based on Gogol's The Overcoat. However, I suspect that in marked contrast to myself Bogdanovich is not an admirer of the remarkable avant-garde short Film, the Samuel Beckett piece with Keaton as the central figure which is quickly dismissed here as controversial.

 

One feature of this film breaks with convention in that, despite this being a largely chronological work, Bogdanovich opts to postpone until the last half-hour what proves to be a detailed study of those classic features that illustrate so unforgettably Buster's brilliance as a director as well as his genius as the most athletic of all screen comics. This proves to be a useful decision since it brings some variety into the film: the first third incorporates a concentrated consideration of the shorts that appeared between 1920 and 1923 including the lesser known The Boat and that means that both the first and last sections of The Great Buster give pride of place to the extracts while the middle segment makes the life itself its key concern. However, concluding the film with Keaton's classics should not be seen as a desperate bid to end on a positive note since the Buster Keaton story is not ultimately a downbeat one. Since his death Keaton's status has risen with many now preferring him to his greatest rival, Chaplin, and happily this fresh acclaim began before he died: in 1965 Keaton was at the Venice Film Festival and was overwhelmed by the longest audience applause ever bestowed on a guest there. Consequently, Bogdanovich's film is not a work seeking to do Keaton justice at last because his enduring fame is without doubt already assured. You could even argue that that fact makes this film unnecessary, but just think how much enjoyment you will deny yourself should you choose not to see it.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Featuring  Werner Herzog, Quentin Tarantino, Leonard Maltin, Patricia Eliot Tobias, Cybill Shepherd, Mel Brooks, Paul Dooley, Bill Hader, Dick Van Dyke, Carl Reiner, Johnny Knoxville, Richard Lewis, Norman Lloyd, and Peter Bogdanovich as narrator.

 

Dir Peter Bogdanovich, Pro Charles S. Cohen, Louise Straten, Peter Bogdanovich and Rose Sharon Peled, Screenplay Peter Bogdanovich, Ph Dustin Perarlman, Ed Bill Berg-Hillinger, Music The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.

 

Cohen Media Group/Charles S. Cohen-Screenbound Pictures.
101 mins. USA. 2018. DVD and Blu-Ray Rel: 21 September 2020. Cert. PG.