4

Peter Bogdanovich’s The Great Buster Sits Back and Gapes at a Legend

Buster Keaton appears in a scene from 1924's Sherlock Jr., one of several clips from films of the comic legend in Peter Bogdanovich's documentary The Great Buster: A Celebration.
Buster Keaton appears in a scene from 1924's Sherlock Jr., one of several clips from films of the comic legend in Peter Bogdanovich's documentary The Great Buster: A Celebration.
Courtesy of Cohen Media Group
^
Keep Westword Free
I Support
  • Local
  • Community
  • Journalism
  • logo

Support the independent voice of Denver and help keep the future of Westword free.

“It may not have been Houdini who said it, but what the hell,” Peter Bogdanovich says, in the voice of the Official Narrator, early in his joyous The Great Buster: A Celebration. He’s referring to the claim that the name Buster came from Harry Houdini, a friend of Keaton’s vaudevillian parents, who is purported to have offered it up as praise for the striking way the youngest member of the The Three Keatons took a tumble on stage — as a toddler. “That was a real buster!” the storied magician is said to have exclaimed.

Bogdanovich’s cheery uncertainty befits a film with the subtitle of A Celebration. He’s in print-the-legend mode, evangelizing a greater truth, one beyond mere fact-checking. Despite some talking-head testimonials from Carl Reiner, Johnny Knoxville, Leonard Maltin and Richard Lewis, The Great Buster at heart is an opportunity to hang with Bogdanovich as he screens favorite sequences from ol’ stone face’s 1920s two- and five-reel masterpieces. It’s a relaxed study of greatness, of exquisite physical comedy, of how’d-he-do-that stunt work, of a vigorous cinema artist who saw new and enduring possibilities for his medium. Unlike too many documentarians surveying the career of an artist, Bogdanovich lets his clips run long, surrendering the film to his subject.

Big names don’t guarantee the occasional interviewees much screen time. Bogdanovich understands that we don’t need to hear much of Quentin Tarantino rhapsodizing about Keaton’s prowess as a director of action when we can behold gobsmacking clips from Seven Chances (1925) and The General (1926). That said, it’s a delight to witness Dick Van Dyke telling us the advice that Keaton once gave him for lessening the impact of a pratfall — and later showing off the pool cue that Keaton left him after the filmmaker’s death in 1966.

Bogdanovich’s celebration has its darkness, of course. He gives over the film’s middle third to Keaton’s career in the sound era. Keaton had masterminded all aspects of his great ’20s movies, but at MGM, starting in 1928, Keaton found himself at the mercy of studio hacks with little respect for — or interest in — slapstick or the inventive construction of gags. Divorce, drinking and institutionalization all followed, but Bogdanovich places his emphasis on the world’s rediscovery of Keaton in mid-century. He includes judicious excerpts from ’50s and ’60s film cameos, TV appearances, commercial work, most of it delightful — especially clips of Keaton on Candid Camera, his comic timing still whetstone sharp, playing a sad sack at a lunch counter whose toupee winds up in his soup.

Always a showman, Bogdanovich shrewdly, brazenly upends the usual life-passing-by structure of such docs to close with what we want most, a lengthy appreciation of Keaton’s feature-length mid-1920s work. Bogdanovich selects his highlights judiciously, gushes over them warmly and perhaps inevitably manages to work in an appearance from his old pal Orson Welles, introducing The General. Who could have guessed, back in the 1970s, that in 2018 we’d see a new Welles picture co-starring Bogdanovich (The Other Side of the Wind) and a new Bogdanovich film with a Welles cameo? Running just over ninety minutes, The Great Buster ends on a high and will likely leave you wanting more. Isn’t it time for some epic PBS miniseries about the great silent film comics? Possibly one more rigorous than this celebration, one where we actually want to hear the talking-head experts talk?

Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.

We use cookies to collect and analyze information on site performance and usage, and to enhance and customize content and advertisements. By clicking 'X' or continuing to use the site, you agree to allow cookies to be placed. To find out more, visit our cookies policy and our privacy policy.

 

Join the Westword community and help support independent local journalism in Denver.

 

Join the Westword community and help support independent local journalism in Denver.