Early on in his documentary “The Great Buster,” filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich recounts a story of how Buster Keaton got his famous nickname. Joseph Frank Keaton was a child performer in vaudeville with his parents, who threw him around the stage so much that he got the nickname “The Human Projectile.”
The act was co-managed by none other than Harry Houdini, who, upon seeing Keaton hurled across the stage, remarked, “That was quite a buster.” (“Buster” being vaudeville slang for a pratfall.)
And so, the legend goes, he became Buster Keaton. Only then Bogdanovich adds, “Maybe he didn’t say it. But what the hell.”
That made me laugh out loud, and is indicative of the loose vibe of the documentary, which was released last month by Cohen Media Group. In some ways, it’s a familiar sort of documentary, mixing beloved clips of the great silent comedian with interviews with famous fans, including Dick Van Dyke, Quentin Tarantino and Bill Hader. But Bogdanovich’s affectionate narration, and his eye toward curating the best clips from Keaton’s movies, make it something special for longtime Keaton fans or those who need an introduction to his work.
“The Great Buster” follows Keaton’s career in Hollywood’s Golden Age more or less chronologically, with one big exception. After covering his vaudeville career and early shorts with Fatty Arbuckle, the film largely skips over the iconic silent features, like “Sherlock, Jr.” and “The General,” that Keaton wrote, directed and starred in with his own independent production unit in the 1920s. “We’ll get to those later,” Bogdanovich says.
The film then jumps ahead to Keaton’s biggest mistake in his career, signing with MGM Studios and relinquishing the control he had over his films. I like some of those MGM movies — years ago I saw “Cameraman” at the UW-Cinematheque with live musical accompaniment and it was a riot. But the general consensus was that MGM didn’t know what to do with a comic genius like Keaton, and was more interested in making films quickly and cheaply.
Keaton gamely kept going, but things got dire with the introduction of sound in films, and some of those films are truly painful to watch. Keaton was getting paid a fraction of what he made before, and his comic gifts were being thrown away.
Keaton’s career took a pratfall, but he got back up. His unlikely savior was television. He began shooting live commercials in the early days of television, and those ads served as elegant little short films, perfect for his comic sensibilities. He also got paid really well to do 60 seconds of work at a time.
The film covers Keaton’s career up until his death in 1966. He was working, often without stunt doubles, right up until the end. Then Bogdanovich goes back to those 1920s films he skipped over before, with a glorious climax weaving together some of Keaton’s best onscreen moments.
These aren’t just great moments in cinema comedy, they’re great moments in cinema, period, with amazing stunts and epic scenes with hundreds of extras. A sequence in “Sherlock, Jr.” where Keaton jumps in and out of a movie screen is like a great magic trick, still mind-boggling nearly a century later.
It’s an ending that provides the best possible tribute to the silent screen star. While the film doesn’t skip the later, sadder chapters in Keaton’s life, it lets his best work have the last word.