Buster Keaton was a born showman, performing in his parents’ vaudeville act from the age of four as a “human projectile” who got thrown around stage like a dart — he even had a handle on his back. (His father was accused of child abuse in several states, but managed to skirt by on legal loopholes.) Despite that, “Old Stone Face” — who was far more expressive than that enduring moniker suggests — is said to have only gotten slightly injured twice in more than 10,000 childhood performances.
That’s just one of the facts offered by Peter Bogdanovich’s “The Great Buster: A Celebration,” a loving documentary tribute to the Silent Era icon that could have used more of his mischievous spirit. Keaton was an ahead-of-his-time innovator, and though Bogdanovich honors that legacy he doesn’t always live up to it: You’ll leave the film knowing more about its subject than you did when you walked in, but there’s little here that feels like it couldn’t be found in one of the many other accounts of Keaton’s life and work.
Best known for writing and directing New Hollywood classics like “The Last Picture Show” and “Paper Moon,” Bogdanovich first explored this kind of territory in 1971’s “Directed by John Ford” and boasts an encyclopedic knowledge of film history. It’s curious, then, that he seems reluctant to really dig beneath the surface of anything besides masterpieces like “The General” and “Sherlock Jr.”
Bogdanovich pulls double duty as narrator, doing so in a slapdash manner that feels apropos of the subject — “it may not have been Houdini who said it,” he says after recounting the claim that the famous magician granted Keaton the “Buster” nickname, “but what the hell.” (At the time, “buster” meant fall.) More moments like this would go a long way toward making “The Great Buster” stand out from the crowd. There’s nothing unconventional about the presentation, which alternates between archival footage and talking-head interviews as it progresses through Keaton’s life in chronological fashion, and occasionally a stray detail will be mentioned in passing that will leave you wanting more.
There’s barely anything about Keaton’s time in the army during World War I, for instance, despite the aside that he suffered hearing loss that affected him for the rest of his life — affected him how, you might wonder, especially given Keaton’s physical comedy and his status as an icon of silent cinema? Bogdanovich is generally more concerned with the man’s body of work than the man himself, which is no great sin — there’s great fun in this greatest-hits approach, which frequently shows us minutes at a time of such classics as “One Week” and “The Boat,” even if it sometimes feels like a missed opportunity.
Keaton was highly prolific at his peak, releasing as many as seven two-reelers in a single year, and his works were marvels of staging, production design, and one-man ingenuity whose influence — as evidenced by testimonials from Johnny Knoxville of “Jackass” and even “Spider-Man Homecoming” director Jon Watts — remains enormous. The joy of those early pictures is fleeting, however, and the film’s account of Keaton’s experiences in the studio system during the sound era is nothing if not depressing. (Keaton himself referred to them as “cheaters.”)
Bogdanovich makes sure we know that he didn’t simply disappear with the advent of talkies, however. A hit onstage in Paris, Keaton went on to have his own half-hour TV show in his mid-50s and made dozens of commercials in his later years; in one way or another, he was a constant presence in entertainment for nearly half a century. That knowledge will come as some comfort to those who remember his cameo in “Sunset Boulevard” as one of the “waxworks” whose time has come and gone, but there’s still a sense of melancholy to much of what the performer did in the latter half of his life — his heart always seemed to be in that physical mode of comedy, which he often tried to inject into incompatible projects. “The Great Buster” is at its most affecting when tapping into that sadness.
The film’s first hour offers a broad overview of Keaton’s life and work, with the remaining 40-odd minutes devoted to a close study of the independent features he made throughout the 1920s. It’s here that “The Great Buster” truly becomes a celebration, one that provides more than a CliffsNotes version on its subject, and it’s clearly where Bogdanovich is having the most fun. Bill Hader, Mel Brooks, Cybill Shepherd, and Quentin Tarantino are among the interviewees, but it’s the director himself who does most of the talking and analysis as he comments on individual scenes and points out how stunning they remain nearly a century later. “I always want an audience to out-guess me,” Keaton is said to have claimed, “and then I double-cross them.” Bogdanovich emulates that same inventiveness on occasion, and would have done well to do so more often.
“The Great Buster: A Celebration” world premiered at the Venice Film Festival. Cohen Media will release the film in the U.S. on October 5.