“The Great Buster” celebrates the life and career of a Hollywood visionary
Updated: Apr 30, 2019
BLU-RAY REVIEW / FRAME SHOTS
Buster Keaton’s greatest gag - “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” (1928)
“The General” (1927) - No. 18 in the American Film Institute’s 10th Anniversary Edition - 100 Greatest American Films.
“THE GREAT BUSTER: A CELEBRATION”
Blu-ray, 2018, not rated, but it’s OK for all ages; streaming via Amazon Video/Prime, FandangoNOW, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
Best extra: “Conversations from the Quad,” a casual interview with director/writer Peter Bogdanovich filmed at a screening of his documentary in New York
THERE ISN’T MUCH to glean from “Conversations from the Quad,” the interview with Peter Bogdanovich that’s included on his delightful documentary about the great Buster Keaton. He even hints at it himself. “You know what they say: ‘The movie says it all,’ I hope.”
Bogdanovich (“The Last Picture Show,” “Paper Moon”) then asks why no one asks if you heard that “old” symphony by Mozart or read that “old” book by Dickens—his point being that, in the minds of more than a few people, only movies get old.
“Well, if you haven’t seen it,” he says, “it’s new to you.”
If you’ve never seen the silent-era masterworks of one of Hollywood’s true visionaries, you’re in for a treat, and “The Great Buster,” which Bogdanovich directed and wrote, is the ideal primer.
And just like he hoped, the movie says it all, only in a sort of convoluted way.
It begins with a timeline that traces Keaton’s starring turn, at 4 years old, in his parents’ popular vaudeville act, his apprenticeship under Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, his emergence as the director and star of his own silent two-reelers and full-length masterpieces of the 1920s, and his departure for MGM, a decision that Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd discouraged and which he considered the biggest mistake of his life.
“The Great Stone Face”
(Left to right) “The Saphead” (1920), “One Week” (1920), “Go West” (1925), "The Scarecrow" (1920)
(Left to right) Patrica Eliot Tobias, founder, The International Buster Keaton Society; James Karen, actor and Buster Keaton friend; Richard Lewis, comedian, friend of Eleanor Keaton; Mel Brooks, producer, director and actor, always has the “Buster Keaton Remembered” book on his desk.
Good enough, but instead of, say, folding “Sherlock Jr.” (1924), “The Navigator” (1924), “Go West” (1925), “The General” (1926) and “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” (1928) into that opening timeline, the documentary references them then goes into detail later.
That, of course, is a quibble.
Along the way we learn that:
“The Great Stone Face” never worked with a script, just a beginning and satisfying ending. The middle? That took care of itself.
“The Navigator” came about because a large boat was on the market and someone wondered what Buster could do with a boat.
That he struggled with alcohol, suffered a nervous breakdown and was married twice before finding the love of his life, Eleanor Norris.
We also hear from Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Dick Van Dyke and others who share genuine insight as well as Quentin Tarantino, Bill Hader, Johnny Knoxville and others who, frankly, make you wonder why Bogdanovich sat them down. Maybe it was to connect in 2019.
No surprise that those interviews look great—the icing is that most of the footage, even though it’s just snippets, does, too. The original music by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra takes its cue from the soundtracks of the silent era.
Let the good times roll.
- Craig Shapiro
At age 4, Buster Keaton became a star wearing Galway whiskers, part of his parents (Joe & Myra) Vaudeville act.
His first motion picture role in the Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle two-reeler “The Butcher Boy” (1917).
“One Week” - Keaton’s second two-reeler as star, writer and director.
A bride and groom try to move their disastrous prefabricated house off a train crossing before the approaching train wallops the structure.
“Seven Chances” (1925) features a chase with hundreds of women.
“Steamboat Bill, Jr.” (1928)
Keaton played himself in Billy Wilder’s classic “Sunset Boulevard” (1950) and starred in a number of TV commercials during the 1950s and '60s for Alka-Seltzer, Ford and Northwest Orient Airlines.