THE GREAT BUSTER (2018) – Lovingly constructed documentary about Buster Keaton

Peter Bogdanovich’s documentary The Great Buster doesn’t cover a lot of new ground about the famed silent-film comic, but at the same time, Bogdanovich can hardly be accused of slacking off. There are a lot of talking heads in this movie, but at least Bogdanovich went to a lot of trouble to get the best of them — from Keaton’s acting contemporaries James Karen and Norman Lloyd, to comedy legends Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, and Dick Van Dyke, to modern comics Keaton influenced such as “Jackass'” Johnny Knoxville and “SNL” alum Bill Hader.

(My only complaint in this area: Why actress Cybill Shepherd, other than that she used to be Bogdanovich’s girlfriend? She’s certainly not renowned as any silent-film or comedy expert.)

Even in covering such familiar material as Keaton’s life story, Bogdanovich manages a few quiet surprises. I probably should have known this already, but I hadn’t known that Keaton turned down a chance to debut on Broadway in a surefire hit in order to make his film debut with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. And for years, fans of Keaton and Charlie Chaplin have debated whether each tried to steal the other’s thunder in their only film appearance together, in Chaplin’s Limelight (1952). Norman Lloyd, who also appeared in the movie, finally and definitively ends that debate, showing that the duo worked together to make this scene the best it could possibly be.

And Bogdanovich brings together some lovely Keaton material — such as many of the silent-film-style TV commercials in which Buster appeared, and some choicer material from his later, weaker short subjects for Educational and Columbia — to prove the point that, even after Keaton fell from his creative heights of the 1920’s, he gave every project the best he had and never just walked through a scene.

Bogdanovich takes an unusual narrative path for his movie. He spends the movie’s first two-thirds documenting Keaton’s life story (with choice Keaton scenes and gags liberally sprinkled throughout), and then fills the film’s final 40 minutes with generous footage from Keaton’s amazing feature films of the 1920’s. (I am also grateful to Bogdanovich for stating a minority and unpopular view — which I happen to share — that Keaton’s first big-studio feature, M-G-M’s The Cameraman [1928], is not the masterpiece that most Keaton buffs make it out to be.)

For Keaton buffs, The Great Buster is like a familiar tale from an excellent storyteller, but dotted with some lovely detours along the way.

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WHAT’S OPERA, DOC? (1957) – Chuck Jones’ melodramatic masterpiece

There’s every reason that What’s Opera, Doc? shouldn’t work at all, yet it works perfectly.

As anyone who knows their Looney Tunes knows, this cartoon takes the long-familiar motif of milquetoast Elmer Fudd hunting wily Bugs Bunny and places it in a melodramatic opera setting. Or as stated by the cartoon’s director, Chuck Jones, “We took the entire Ring of the Nibelungen music and crushed it down to six minutes.”

We usually expect a Looney Tune to be filled wall-to-wall with gut-busting laughs. What’s Opera, Doc? transcends expectations, for sure providing a sufficient amount of laughter (love that opening shot, where the foreboding shadow of a mighty warrior turns out to emanate from diminutive Elmer) but replacing a lot of the laughs with just plain awe.

First off, notice the deliberate staginess of the cartoon. Waterfalls stand still, and trees don’t sway from any breeze. It’s obvious that Jones wanted this to look like a staged opera; the only thing missing is a proscenium frame.

Once the setting is established, Jones takes familiar Bugs-and-Elmer motifs and stylizes them to the hilt. Normally, Bugs would be setting off one trickster scheme after another. Here, a single trick is drawn out to provide a big, glorious guffaw: Bugs dressed as the beautiful Valkyrie Brunhilde, riding in on a gargantuan horse.

From there, the audience’s footing is uprooted in the same manner that Alfred Hitchcock defied movie logic at the halfway point of Psycho (1960). We find ourselves laughing and feeling for cuckolded Elmer at the same time. And when Elmer summons his almighty revenge on Bugs, it holds a lot more power than that silly rifle he could never manage.

All of this builds to a climax that is so beautifully melodramatic, you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. (Don’t worry — Bugs sways the final vote.)

This amazing cartoon was accomplished with trickery that would have made Bugs himself proud. Each Looney Tunes cartoon was usually manufactured within five weeks; this cartoon took seven weeks. To allay any front-office suspicions, Chuck Jones created a subsequent Road Runner cartoon that he finished off in only three weeks, and he had his entire crew doctor their time cards to balance out the two-week discrepancy.

An often-underrated member of Jones’ unit was his art director, Maurice Noble, who brought extra depth to Jones cartoons such as Duck Dodgers in the 24th-1/2 Century. Here, Jones let Noble have carte blanche on creating colors and shadows that added to the cartoon’s atmosphere. (Noble said in one interview, “They thought I was bats when I wanted to put all those purples on Elmer.”)

IMHO, What’s Opera, Doc? is the peak of what might be considered the Golden Age of Looney Tunes. There were still many wonderful cartoons to come (before the original group of Warners cartoon directors, known as the guys from “Termite Terrace,” were officially disbanded in 1963). But none of those subsequent cartoons were to be nearly as awe-inspiring, or as rich with possibilities.

THE HOTTER’NELL BLOGATHON – Da Big Finish

We’re not just blowing smoke when we say that we received some great entries to conclude our summer-and-heat-wave blogathon! So let’s end on a high (note) as we present

Click on the appropriate day to read entries from Day 1 and Day 2 if you missed them. For today’s entries, click on the name of each individual blog.

Movies Silently discusses Harry Langdon’s role as a well-meaning but inept fireman in the Mack Sennett comedy His First Flame.

A divorcee dad (Gerard Depardieu) has trouble dealing with the realities of his growing-up daughter (Katherine Heigl) in My Father the Hero, as chronicled by Taking Up Room.

Moon in Gemini points out how the themes of 1961’s The Day the Earth Caught Fire eerily parallel today’s hot-button issue of global warning.

And finally, Silver Screen Classics lovingly chronicles the ways in which Marilyn Monroe gives unhappily married Tom Ewell The Seven Year Itch.

Our thanks to all the participants and readers of our hot-headed blogathon. Have a happy, safe, and cool summer!

THE HOTTER’NELL BLOGATHON – Intermission

This was supposed to be the final day of The Hotter’nell Blogathon, but thus far, we have received only two more entries and are still awaiting entries from four other bloggers. So we’re giving them one day of clemency and hope that they’ll catch up. In the meantime, click on the appropriate day if you would like to read the ‘thon entries from Day 1 and Day 2.