'The Great Buster: A Celebration': Film Review | Venice 2018

A wonderful appreciation of a great American comic and filmmaker.

Peter Bogdanovich's doc delves into the genius of one of Hollywood's timeless comic greats.

Anytime is the right time to celebrate Buster Keaton, so hats off and three cheers to Peter Bogdanovich for perceptively bringing the brilliance of one of Hollywood's comic greats to fresh attention in this lovely and sharp-minded new documentary. No matter that Keaton's best work is nearly a century old; it always had and still has a more modern edge to it than that of any of his contemporaries, and this swift and knowledgeable appreciation will well serve its fundamental aim of increasing the size of the Keaton fan club. After debuting at the Venice Film Festival, Bogdanovich's vastly entertaining portrait will presumably serve as an anchor for Keaton seasons on screens large and small in many parts of the world.

Just a few years after Keaton's death at 70 in 1966, his work was enthusiastically embraced by a large and mostly youthful new audience with the wide theatrical revival release of his key titles. While his ingenuity as a physical comic has always made him stand out, what remains most striking is Keaton's adventurousness and modernism as a filmmaker, followed closely by his lack of sentimentality compared to any of his rivals.

His genius is lauded and analyzed here by an array of commentators notable for its eclecticism, from Mel Brooks to Werner Herzog, from Norman Lloyd to Johnny Knoxville, the latter probably the only modern film figure to rival Keaton in the realm of doing genuinely dangerous comic stunts. And in an inspired move, Bogdanovich has figured out a way to save the best for last, structuring his film so that Keaton's great period, embracing 10 films he made in five years up to 1928, serves as the climax during the documentary's final third.

Speaking the narration himself, Bogdanovich handles the early biographical material entertainingly. Little Buster was already a vaudeville star at age 4, as the youngest member of The 3 Keatons with his parents. It's instantly apparent where Keaton got his flair for dangerous rough-and-tumble physical comedy; so perilous were some of the routines little Buster participated in that his old man was repeatedly accused of child abuse.

It was lucrative, all the same, and the kid's agility and daring was something he eventually put to remarkable use in his own work. After serving in France during World War I, Buster learned about filmmaking when he teamed with the popular Fatty Arbuckle, and soon became so successful that he opened his own company, BK Studios, where he turned out 19 two-reelers between 1920-23. His marriage into the Schenck family made him Hollywood royalty, although this later proved a liability.

Comedians including Richard Lewis, Bill Hader and Carl Reiner offer keen assessments of Keaton's skill. Brooks perceptively notes that Keaton had the same eyes as the great French mime Jean-Louis Barrault, Dick Van Dyke compares him to a ballet dancer and Herzog observes, “Keaton always had that quiet tragedy which is very, very funny.”

After showcasing some choice clips of Keaton's brilliant accomplishments in the early 1920s, the film jumps ahead to identify what Keaton always deemed “the biggest mistake of my life,” his signing (due to family connections) with Hollywood's biggest studio, MGM. Bigger did not mean better where comics were concerned. To the contrary: All big comedians who joined Metro did their worst work there and saw their standing diminish as a result.

For Keaton, this began with the studio not permitting him to direct his films. His timing was suddenly off. The coming of sound was brutal on all silent comedians, and Keaton was quickly paired with the gravely voiced comic Jimmy Durante. After a divorce (and estrangement from his two sons), Keaton was let go by Metro. He became a serious alcoholic.

Marriage to Eleanor Norris, in 1940, saved him. He went on the wagon for good, began getting small parts again, including one in Chaplin's Limelight, described here by their centenarian co-star Norman Lloyd. Later came the biographical feature The Buster Keaton Story, starring Donald O'Connor, a particularly hilarious stint on TV's Candid Camera, the leading role in a film called Film written by Samuel Beckett, comic parts in beach party pictures and a 10-minute standing ovation upon receiving life achievement honors at the Venice Film Festival. There surely would have been many more of this sort of thing had Keaton lived a few more years but he died, at 70, in 1966.

But for Bogdanovich, this is not the end of the story. Instead, he pivots back in time, to 1923, and spends nearly 40 minutes examining the 10 great or near-great films Keaton made within a five-year period, all starring, and mostly directed by, himself and filled with a staggeringly consistent level of sophisticated physical comedy.

Few filmmakers have had such a run. The Three Ages and Our Hospitality are followed by the sublimely inventive, quasi-surrealistic Sherlock Jr.; the superb The Navigator, then Seven Chances, Go West, Battling Butler; his official classic, The General, which Quentin Tarantino herein calls “one of the great action movies” and Orson Welles says is “a hundred times more stunning visually than Gone With the Wind"; College; and his final silent, Steamboat Bill Jr. As Bogdanovich says, “That kind of physical comedy will never be unfunny.”

The mix of commentators is unusual and lively, hardly the usual crowd that often pops up in documentaries like this, the clips are illustrative and on point in addition to often being eye-popping, and the film looks certain to please Keaton aficionados. Most importantly, it's likely to induce newcomers to investigate the great stone face for themselves.

Venues: Venice Film Festival (Venice Classics Documentary Films)
Opens: Oct. 5 (Cohen Media Group)
Production: Cohen Media Group
With: James Curtis, James Karen, Dick Van Dyke, Johnny Knoxville, Paul Dooley, Patty Tobias, Bob Borgen, French Stewart, Richard Lewis, Bill Hader, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Cybill Shepherd, Werner Herzog, Jon Watts, Nick Kroll, Quentin Tarantino, Bill Irwin, Norman Lloyd
Narrator: Peter Bogdanovich
Director: Peter Bogdanovich
Writer: Peter Bogdanovich
Producer: Charles S. Cohen

103 minutes