This conventional but thoroughly entertaining documentary takes us through a life that spanned the formative years of the film industry. Rating: 3 stars out of 4.
He had, says someone in Peter Bogdanovich’s documentary “The Great Buster,” “a face you could paint your feelings on.” The legendary silent-movie comedian Buster Keaton was known as “The Great Stone Face” for his trademark deadpan, but his expressive, just-keep-swimming eyes told endless stories.
“The Great Buster,” a conventional but thoroughly entertaining film, takes us through Keaton’s history — a life that spanned the formative years of the film industry. Born Joseph Frank Keaton in 1895 to traveling vaudevillian parents, he learned physical comedy through time spent being flung around on stage as part of the Keaton family act. His nickname came from Harry Houdini, who saw the boy expertly tumble down a set of stairs and observed, “that’s some buster your kid took.” (Bogdanovich, who narrates the film, observes wryly that this anecdote might not be true — though Houdini was a family friend — but it’s nonetheless a good story.)
With a wealth of clips, the film takes us through Keaton’s screen career, which began in 1917 with comic short films made for Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, graduated to full-length features in the early 1920s, and essentially ended less than a decade later with the advent of talkies and cartoons. Though he continued to make short films, and brief appearances in features, until his death in 1966, his prime had ended. As Charles Chaplin said of the end of the silent-film era, “just when we got it right, it was over.”
Bogdanovich, both a filmmaker and a film scholar, structures the film as first an hourlong chronological exploration of Keaton’s life and work, followed by a half-hour deep dive into Keaton’s classic films of the 1920s. An assortment of comedians, filmmakers and friends speak of his legacy; some effectively so. Werner Herzog, deploying his own inimitable deadpan, observes that Keaton had “that quiet tragedy which is very, very funny”; Dick Van Dyke notes that he stole plenty of moves from Keaton, including a subtle technique of absorbing the impact of a pratfall with a hand. (You wonder, though, if only men were influenced by Keaton; a female comic voice, such as physical comedy masters Lily Tomlin or Kate McKinnon, would have been of interest.)
But this movie lives in its black-and-white clips, which provide both a fine introduction to those new to Keaton’s work, and plenty to dig into for hard-core fans. The train crossing a burning bridge in “The General,” directed by Keaton (at the time the most expensive single-shot in history) is still breathtaking today. And Keaton’s wonderfully breezy use of his body, doing the impossible with nonchalance, never grows old. Watch him outrunning a landslide of rocks in “Seven Chances”; flying off the rail of a train in “Day Dreams”; frantically circling his rotating house in “One Week” — just to name three. Keaton and the era he symbolized is long gone, but this documentary reminds us that he lives forever.
★★★ “The Great Buster,” a documentary directed by Peter Bogdanovich. 100 minutes. Not rated; suitable for general audiences. Opens Nov. 30 at the Grand Illusion.