The Great Buster documents Keaton's rise, fall, and comeback. Unlike Chaplin and Lloyd, Keaton remained active in the final years of his life, cranking out commercials and supporting roles in comedies. It is almost heartwarming to know that Hollywood and television never really forgot Buster Keaton, and found a place for him until the end.
Keaton grew up in the family of a touring Vaudeville act. He made a key decision to leave the theater for cinema, and became an associate of then-leading comic Fatty Arbuckle. Arbuckle became mired in the scandalous death Virginia Rappe, and Keaton took over the production company. He transitioned from two reel shorts to features, the highest regarded of his career.
The documentary moves its coverage of these classic features to the end of the movie, presumably to end it on a high note. At the end of the silent era, Keaton signed with MGM, where he made disappointing films over which he had limited artistic control. He turned to drink, and was reduced to a gag man making $100 a week.
But unlike John Gilbert or John Barrymore, Keaton turned a corner. His third wife, Eleanor Norris, was devoted to him and his career, and her willpower pushed Keaton back into the limelight. He had small roles in Chaplin's Limelight and Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard.. By the time he died of lung cancer at age 70, Keaton was making more money than ever as an actor, albeit in bad movies such as Beach Blanket Bingo.
Bogdanovich has enlisted an impressive list of directors, comedians, and film scholars as talking heads. The veteran cinemaphile will recognize Quentin Tarantino, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Werner Herzog, Leonard Maltin, Dick Van Dyke, Ben Mankiewicz, and Cybill Shepherd, whom Bogdanovich first made a star in The Last Picture Show.
Dick Van Dyke's cameo is the most interesting. Keaton personally gave Van Dyke his pool stick, purportedly the one used in a famous scene from Sherlock, Jr.
How others will see it. The word for The Great Buster is obscure. At imdb.com, the movie has a mere 89 user ratings. Older audiences like the film best, perhaps because they are most likely to have known something about his career before seeing the film.
The Great Buster did win a trophy at the prestigious Venice Film Festival; Best Documentary on Cinema.
How I felt about it. The Great Buster is about its subject, of course, but it also says something about its director and narrator, Peter Bogdanovich. He was once the promising young behind Paper Moon, The Last Picture Show, and What's Up, Doc? whose career stalled after Daisy Miller.
But he has remained active deep into his senior years, mostly as an actor. Bogdanovich's serious interest in movie-making comes through here, in his effort to honor one of the leading comics of the silent era.