Why is it so flipping funny to watch a grown man fall over? I don’t know, but Buster Keaton realized this from a young age and basically built his career on pratfalls and slapstick gags. Here he is – again and again – falling flat on his ass, and audiences just lap it up, loving it, nearly a hundred years later. It just doesn’t get old.
The Great Buster takes a look at his life and spans his decades-long career. I absolutely love silent movies – there’s no greater remedy to make you feel better on a bad day – and the events told here are thoroughly researched and entertainingly presented. It might not be true that Harry Houdini was the one who gave him his nickname, Buster – slang for ‘fall’ – but as Peter Bogdanovich reliably narrates, ‘what the hell?’ Indeed, Peter, indeed. Keaton was also a mechanical genius and his engineering mindset is translated into making people laugh in the most fascinating and hilarious ways, as this documentary dissects for us.
The Great Buster
Director: Peter Bogdanovich
Release Date: November 9, 2018
Keaton’s story, for the most part, is a heartwarming tale. He started out as Vaudeville star – part one of the most dangerous and lowbrow acts of the early 1900s, The Three Keatons – and this just-for-fun low-budget entertainment was formative in making Buster the star he was, even if it seemed like his parents were chucking him around onstage for profit (they were.) From here, little Buster’s name grew and he became a household name in American comedy, up there with the greats like Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy.
This is a really comprehensive and entertainingly written journey through silent cinema, from The Butcher Boy (1917) to Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928) via Sherlock Jr. (1924), Our Hospitality (1923) and The Playhouse (1921) (think the Marx Brothers meets Chaplin’s A Night in the Show). The Great Buster is star-studded, with tons of famous talking heads, more than you can shake a big silent film window cleaner’s ladder at. And it has plenty to say about Buster’s history, style and legacy. The pork-pie hat and deadpan expression are now iconic, first appearing in The Boat (1921), in an infamous shot where the vessel sinks and only his hat remains. As interviewees are quick to remark, Buster was incredibly expressive and told many stories: he just never smiled! Even Kevin Feige, producer of the entire MCU, talked about the clear influences of silent cinema on modern-day superheroes who effectively have no facial expressions and must rely on physicality to convey how they’re feeling and what’s happening.
I’m telling you, and this documentary is too: the silents are where it’s at. Without them, we wouldn’t be where we are today with modern movies. If you’ve not seen any of these films, go quit your job/school/college and sit down with a bunch of silent movies for the rest of the day – you won’t regret it. As a film grad, I might be biased, but I can’t get enough of the impressive, ahead of their time stunts; the amazingly choreographed scenes; and the pathos underlying the humor that makes them so darn addictive and heartwarming. The scores can be fantastic (when producers get them right) – larger than life and heightening the drama and the tension, playing seriously even the funniest of dramatic situations. The Great Buster, while not a complete overview of the silent era, does a thorough job of making sure we know all there is to know about Buster, honing in on his personal trajectory.
Unfortunately, the arrival of sound in the late 20s basically kills off silent films, which is terrible for the livelihoods of comic masters like Keaton. Alright, we couldn’t be where we are now without sound, but it set the careers of many a genius off the rails and brought in the end of an era. That’s where Buster’s drinking problem comes in, as well as a bad deal signing away his independence to MGM (movie incarnation of The Man.) Things aren’t going well for Buster and his infamous house-falling stunt in Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) really seems like a genuine moment of couldn’t-care-less anguish. Life as he knows it is at stake, and Bogdanovich leads us through the drama and tension of Keaton’s turbulent life as if it were the moment of crisis in one of his silent features.
Free and Easy (1930), Keaton’s first talkie, seems really depressing. It’s sad that this genius is being subject to crappy writing and poor direction. He is fired, is divorced from his wife and suffers a nervous breakdown – it’s a really tragic turn. But there is hope. His final marriage to Elinor Norris is happy and the pair works well together. Even the travesty that was The Buster Keaton Story (a 1957 biopic which had nothing whatsoever to do with his life) nevertheless awarded him a handsome sum of royalties. Limelight (1952) was also a high point, in which he starred for the only time with Charlie Chaplin. In Canadian-produced adventure The Railrodder (1965) he redeemed his early work and his early self, though it’s unpleasant and painful to see him having to be told what to do by less experienced directors who are unaware of his style. It’s sad to see him sell out, reduced to a pawn in a big money-making game – I almost wish the documentary had stopped before his worst work, only celebrating the best.
But for all the ups and downs of his story, the final half an hour is purely devoted to footage from his films, which are a delight. Bogdanovich’s commentary is well-researched and engaging: he goes into detail, for instance, about the single most expensive shot in silent cinema, the $40,000 train wreck in The General. This is considered to be Keaton’s best film, and he thought so himself, and although it was slammed by critics at the time, it is the first example of a dark comedy ever made. He received accolades at the Venice Film Festival 50 years later (delayed, but deserved) and received a standing ovation of 10 minutes, the longest in the history of the festival. These, and a wealth of other factoids, make the documentary genuinely intriguing.
Keaton was a genius, ahead of his time, although duly recognized towards the end of his life. Peter Bogdanovich’s documentary does an excellent job of capturing this and celebrating the life of a man to whom we owe modern cinema. The Great Buster is a joy to watch and essential viewing for anyone who wants to better appreciate silent movies and the gifted masterminds behind it all.