“It may not have been Houdini who said it, but what the hell,” Peter Bogdanovich says, in the voice of the Official Narrator, early in his joyous The Great Buster: A Celebration. He’s referring to the claim that the name Buster came from Harry Houdini, a friend of Keaton’s vaudevillian parents, who is purported to have offered it up as praise for the striking way the youngest member of the The Three Keatons took a tumble onstage — as a toddler. “That was a real buster!” the storied magician is said to have exclaimed.
Bogdanovich’s cheery uncertainty befits a film with the subtitle of A Celebration. He’s in print-the-legend mode, evangelizing a greater truth, one beyond mere fact-checking. Despite some talking-head testimonials from Carl Reiner, Johnny Knoxville, Leonard Maltin and Richard Lewis, The Great Buster at heart is an opportunity to hang with Bogdanovich as he screens favorite sequences from ol’ stone face’s 1920s two- and five-reel masterpieces. It’s a relaxed study of greatness, of exquisite physical comedy, of how’d-he-do-that stunt work, of a vigorous cinema artist who saw new and enduring possibilities for his medium. Unlike too many documentarians surveying the career of an artist, Bogdanovich lets his clips run long, surrendering the film to his subject.
Big names don’t guarantee the occasional interviewees much screen time. Bogdanovich understands that we don’t need to hear much of Quentin Tarantino rhapsodizing about Keaton’s prowess as a director of action when we can behold gobsmacking clips from Seven Chances (1925) and The General (1926). That said, it’s a delight to witness Dick Van Dyke telling us the advice that Keaton once gave him for lessening the impact of a pratfall — and later showing off the pool cue that Keaton left him after the filmmaker’s death in 1966.
Bogdanovich’s celebration has its darkness, of course. He gives over the film’s middle third to Keaton’s career in the sound era. Keaton had masterminded all aspects of his great ’20s movies, but at MGM, starting in 1928, Keaton found himself at the mercy of studio hacks with little respect for — or interest in — slapstick or the inventive construction of gags. Divorce, drinking and institutionalization all followed, but Bogdanovich places his emphasis on the world’s rediscovery of Keaton in mid-century. He includes judicious excerpts from ’50s and ’60s film cameos, TV appearances, commercial work, most of it delightful — especially clips of Keaton on Candid Camera, his comic timing still whetstone sharp, playing a sad sack at a lunch counter whose toupee winds up in his soup.
Always a showman, Bogdanovich shrewdly, brazenly upends the usual life-passing-by structure of such docs to close with what we want most, a lengthy appreciation of Keaton’s feature-length mid-1920s work. Bogdanovich selects his highlights judiciously, gushes over them warmly and perhaps inevitably manages to work in an appearance from his old pal Orson Welles, introducing The General. Who could have guessed, back in the 1970s, that in 2018 we’d see a new Welles picture costarring Bogdanovich (The Other Side of the Wind) and a new Bogdanovich film with a Welles cameo? Running just over 90 minutes, The Great Buster ends on a high and will likely leave you wanting more. Isn’t it time for some epic PBS miniseries about the great silent film comics? Possibly one more rigorous than this celebration, one where we actually want to hear the talking-head experts talk?