Buster Keaton and Elvis Presley were a lot alike (obviously, right?). They were both drafted into military service just as their careers were reaching stratospheric heights. Yet, when both returned to civilian life, they released some of their most iconic work. Plus, Presley sang about a hound dog, while Keaton looked like one. The life and art of the silent comedy auteur are surveyed in Peter Bogdanovich’s The Great Buster: A Celebration (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.
He is so recognizable, yet so underappreciated and misunderstood. Keaton came up during the vaudeville era as a part of his parents’ comedy act. In fact, they had the law called on them several times for their distressing-looking slapstick treatment of young Buster. He would return to the stage to perform his “greatest hits” over the years, but when Keaton discovered motion pictures, something just clicked.
In the early days of cinema, shorts were an important part of the movie-going experience. Keaton made some of the most beloved. However, his reputation rests on his indisputably classic features, particularly Sherlock Jr., Steamboat Bill, and The General. Then he signed with MGM and everything changed. After that, he only directed a few shorts and a handful of gags incorporated in other filmmaker’s features.
Yet, Bogdanovich and his talking heads find unexpected gold in the many commercials and industrial films he made late in life. He also did some respectable work as part of the so-called “golden age” of television, but somehow Keaton’s guest-starring role in the Twilight Zone episode “Once Upon a Time” is overlooked. Still, it is frustrating and arguably even tragic that no Hollywood decision makers were willing to bankroll a new film directed by Keaton.
Bogdanovich (who also serves as narrator) had access to a first-class cast of talking heads, including Dick Van Dyke, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Werner Herzog, and Bill Irwin. Some of the big names do not bring that much to the table (like Quentin Tarantino), whereas many of the best insights and most poignant memories come from his late-career co-stars James Karen (in Samuel Becket’s Film) and Paul Dooley (from commercial work).