As far as I remember, I only watched a few works of Buster Keaton (Shame on me!), but those films were more than enough to show me that he was an extraordinary silent movie star to be appreciated and admired. While willing to hurl himself into many different kinds of comic stunts which are still astounding to say the least, he was effortlessly funny and endearing with his constant deadpan appearance, and he is indeed a comic genius who deserves to be mentioned along with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd.
That was why I had considerable expectation when I was about to about to watch Peter Bogdanovich’s documentary film “The Great Buster: A Celebration” on the last day of the 20th Jeonju International Film Festival, and I am happy to report to you that it did not disappoint me at all. While it may not enlighten you much if you have some basic knowledge on Keaton’s life and career, the documentary did an admirable job of looking around Keaton’s life and career, and it surely reminded me again of Keaton’s undeniable talent and star quality.
At the beginning, the documentary focuses on Keaton’s early life. Both of his parents were vaudeville performers often working here and there around the country, and he was brought into his parents’ show business not long after he was born in the middle of their vaudeville tour in 1895. Thanks to his natural talent, it did not take much time for young Keaton to become another important part of his family show, and there is an amusing anecdote about how young Keaton was frequently put into a number of dangerous but popular acts on the stage by his parents, who could actually have been arrested for child abuse because of that.
After learning a lot from his parents during those wild years, Keaton grew up to be a prominent vaudeville star during the 1910s, and then there came a crucial turning point for his career when he happened to meet his old friend/colleague Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle in New York City, 1917. He introduced Keaton to movie business, and Keaton was instantly drawn to it as discerning its considerable potentials. After the World War I, he made a number of silent comedy short films along with Arbuckle, and that was the period when he came to establish his singular stone face screen persona.
Keaton subsequently moved to Hollywood along with Arbuckle, and, after making several two-reel silent comedy films such as “One Week” (1920), he moved onto what is regarded as the pinnacle of his filmmaking career. After “Our Hospitality” (1923), there came a series of superb silent comedy feature films such as “The Navigator” (1924), “Sherlock Jr.” (1924), “The General” (1926), and “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” (1928), and they are all still pretty funny and amazing mainly thanks to Keaton’s uncanny comic timing which still tickles us a lot even at present.
While making these and other comedy films, Keaton did various kinds of stunts for himself, and the documentary tells us a bit about how fearless he was. Although he could have died or seriously injured, he kept throwing himself into those risky comic moments for inducing genuine laughs from his audiences, and you will be more amazed by how steadily he maintained his deadpan attitude in front of the camera despite numerous risk factors surrounding him on the set.
Shortly after making “Steamboat Bill, Jr.”, Keaton came to be under contract with MGM, but, as Chaplin and Lloyd warned him, that move turned out to be a disastrous turn for his life and career. Under the rigid movie studio system, he completely lost the artistic control over his following films, and he soon became frustrated and disillusioned while also struggling with his growing alcohol problem. Around the end of the 1930s, he became a mere contract player who only earned around 100 dollar per week, and that was really a big fall from his prime period when he earned around 4,000 dollar per week.
Nevertheless, Keaton kept going on like a trouper, and things got a little better for him during the 1940-50s. While his personal life was stabilized thanks to his third wife who stayed beside him till his death in 1966, he did not hesitate to accept whatever was handed to him, and he even demonstrated that he was pretty good at playing serious roles. In Billy Wilder’s caustic classic black comedy film “Sunset Blvd” (1950), he was willing to appear along with several forgotten silent movie stars for generating an authentic moment of bitter laugh, and he later appeared along with Chaplin in Chaplin’s “Limelight” (1952), where he virtually stole the show from Chaplin even though he briefly appeared around the end of that film.
In the meantime, Keaton’s works were rediscovered by critics and audiences. He received an Honorary Oscar in 1960, and he was certainly touched to see his movies being wholeheartedly welcomed at the Venice Film Festival in 1965. During the last part of the documentary, Bogdanovich enthusiastically presents and analyzes some of Keaton’s best films one by one, and that certainly confirms to us again that timeless comic quality of Keaton’s works.
On the whole, “The Great Buster: A Celebration”, which received the Venezia Classici Award at the Venice Film Festival in last year, is an engaging and respectful tribute to Keaton’s life and career, and I was particularly entertained to see a bunch of various interviewees in the documentary, who are all quite willing to talk a lot about Keaton and his movies. In short, this is a pretty enjoyable documentary, and it will certainly make you to check out some of Keaton’s works as soon as possible.