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 , 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.