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From The Paleface to Beach Blanket Bingo to Beckett: Bogdanovich’s Biopic about Beloved Buster Keaton

Ed Rampell: Once talkies took over, the comic famed for his falls hit the skids and Bogdanovich reveals Keaton’s trials and tribulations on- and offscreen.
The Great Buster

THE GREAT BUSTER: A CELEBRATION: LA FILM FESTIVAL 2018

Peter Bogdanovich’s documentary The Great Buster: A Celebration is must-see cinema for all lovers of not only the eponymous Buster Keaton, but of film history, biography, silent movies, comedy and anyone who just loves to laugh out loud. In his loving look at a legend, Bogdanovich chronicles Keaton’s being born to Vaudevillian parents while they were on the road and his childhood spent onstage as part of the family business in variety acts in venues across America.

The film follows Keaton as his brand of physical comedy inevitably led to a career on the silent screen, first in two reel shorts under the tutelage of Fatty Arbuckle then on to starring roles in feature length films he directed and wrote (not that most of his own movies actually had full-blown screenplays per se). Once talkies took over, the comic famed for his falls hit the skids and Bogdanovich reveals Keaton’s trials and tribulations on- and offscreen.

Once talkies took over, the comic famed for his falls hit the skids and Bogdanovich reveals Keaton’s trials and tribulations on- and offscreen.

There are glorious clips galore of Keaton in silents and early talking pictures and on through the 1960s, when he appeared in teen screen romps like Beach Blanket Bingo with Frankie and Annette, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and even in 1965’s Film, scripted by avant-garde playwright Samuel Beckett. We also see Buster on the little screen, in his own eponymous 1950 TV program, commercials, game shows and various roles such as in a 1954 dramatic adaptation of Gogol’s anti-totalitarian The Overcoat for the anthology series Rheingold Theatre.

Bogdanovich is best known for directing features, including 1971’s searing drama The Last Picture Show (for which he received two Oscar noms), 1972’s hilarious ode to Screwball comedies What’s Up, Doc? with Barbra Streisand and 1973’s Depression era-set Paper Moon, which scored 10-year-old Tatum O’Neal an Oscar for acting opposite her father Ryan. However, like his French Cahiers du Cinema counterparts Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, etc., Bogdanovich was initially a critic, who broke into movies with a film historian’s sensibility. In addition to writing books about filmmakers such as Fritz Lang, Bogdanovich also helmed 1967 and 1971 documentaries about Howard Hawks and John Ford. Some of Bogdanovich’s features also explore movie mania, such as 1976’s Nickelodeon and 2001’s The Cat’s Meow, depicting early Hollywood personalities such as producer Thomas Ince and actors Charlie Chaplin and Kirsten Dunst.

Celebration is in this movie history mode, delivering an enticing cinematic slice of one of the screen’s greatest icons. Bogdanovich stresses Keaton’s ingenuity and inventiveness, how he used the camera to tell his stories sans sound, with Vaudeville-honed physical comedy plus sight gags perfect for silent flickers. To tell Keaton’s saga Bogdanovich enlists a stellar team of talking heads, including: Mel Brooks, Dick Van Dyke, Bill Hader, Werner Herzog, Richard Lewis, Norman Lloyd, Leonard Maltin, Ben Mankiewicz, Carl Reiner, Cybill Shepherd, Quentin Tarantino and for good measure, Jackass’ Johnny Knoxville (no stranger he to pratfalls).

Bogdanovich also rather astutely interviews sitcom star French Stewart, who portrayed the comic in Stoneface, The Riseand Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton, a great play that ran at L.A.’s Sacred Fools Theatre and the Pasadena Playhouse. But a funny thing happened on the way to this film forum, as the doc doesn’t fully get under its subject’s skin. Why did Keaton choose the persona that came to be known as “The Great Stone Face”? Bogdanovich, an advocate and practitioner of the auteur theory (indeed, he himself narrates his Celebration) that a director is an “author” expressing a singular worldview, offers little insight into what Keaton, whose character constantly confronted calamity with great equanimity, was saying about the human condition.

Bogdanovich blithely quotes Keaton claiming that he played a Confederate instead of a Union soldier in his 1926 Civil War classic The General because audiences would sympathize more with a character from the losing side. Well, not if they were Black or anti-slavery, and this points to a problem with Buster (whose characters occasionally appeared in blackface). Freud wrote that humor is rebellious (not to say “rebels” in the Johnny Reb way) against authority, and Keaton’s depicting Johnny Gray as being on the side of the Confederacy - and thus slavery - raises a red flag.

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In that other silent cinema titan Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 Modern Times and 1940 The Great Dictator, he portrayed an oppressed unemployed worker and then a “Jewish Barber” facing the Nazis of “Adenoid Hynkel”, tyrant of “Tomania.” In other words, the Little Tramp (who his son Michael told me was part-Roma) identifies with the underdog - not with the slave masters and the gray coats who fought to preserve human bondage.

Keaton’s failure to articulate a humanistic vision arguably contributed to his losing of the independence he experienced during the silent cinema. According to Stoneface, when Chaplin co-created United Artists Keaton was asked to be a co-founder - but he declined. Bogdanovich contends that Keaton was ensnared by family ties which eventually led to a disastrous contract with MGM that eliminated Keaton’s freewheeling filmmaking ways and reduced him to being merely a performer - no longer a director, writer or auteur. If Keaton had a more developed philosophy he might have valued having the independence needed to express his perspective more, like Chaplin continued to.

Indeed, Keaton is seen in Celebration in a dressing room scene from Chaplin’s 1952 Limelight wherein their characters, two former Vaudeville stars are reunited and preparing to go onstage as Keaton declares: “I never thought it would come to this.” Reading between the lines, this could mean that Keaton was astonished that he’d end up working for his onetime silent screen rival. The documentary adds that Chaplin treated his employee Buster “like a king” and that Keaton returned the favor by co-directing the finale.

Bogdanovich’s 102 minute nonfiction film includes endless footage of Keaton’s cinematic stunts and pratfalls, but even if one is the greatest “fall guy” in stage and screen history, how many tumbles and stumbles can one watch before it begins to get monotonous? Bogdanovich could have cut back and delved deeper into his subject’s psyche. Nevertheless, Celebration was deservedly the winner of the Venice Film Festival’s Best Documentary on Cinema award.

The LA Film Festival presents the LA Premiere of The Great Buster: A Celebration 4:15 p.m., Sept. 23 at ArcLight Culver City, 9500 Culver Blvd., Culver City, CA 90232. Q&A with cast and crew will immediately follow this screening, schedules permitting. For more info see: www.LAFilmfest.com.

This is appropriate, for as the doc relates, Buster was flabbergasted when that filmfest paid homage to him in the 1960s, including a 10 minute, well-deserved standing ovation - the longest in its history, Bogdanovich says. And the great Bogdanovich, too, deserves kudos for his body of work and bringing Keaton back to the silver screen in a superb if imperfect tribute.

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell

L.A.-based criticEd Rampell is co-author/author of four movie film history books, including “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book” (see: https://mutualpublishing.com/product/the-hawaii-movie-and-television-book/ ). At 7:00 p.m., Sept. 27 Rampell is co-presenting a screening of Neruda and a poetry reading to commemorate the 45th anniversary of the Pinocht coup in Chile.