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The Great Buster: A Celebration review – icon of silent film is still the pinnacle

Peter Bogdanovich’s documentary on Buster Keaton is a decent portrait of an early cinema hero – but you’ll learn more from Keaton’s own, uproarious work

In 1972, the same year that Charlie Chaplin was given an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement, Buster Keaton was dismissed on the Dick Cavett Show by Frank Capra as a “pantomime artist.” At least of his early years, that description is a fair one. Born in 1895, Keaton joined his parents’ vaudeville troupe at just eleven months of age, and by the age of 12 was paid $250 a week to be thrown around the stage by his alcoholic father and even, on one occasion, at a heckler in the audience. By the early-1920s, Keaton was one of the most exciting artists on the slapstick circuit; at the end of the decade, he was one of cinema’s most important innovators.

The seven-year stretch in Keaton’s career from 1922 to 1929, which included his most iconic productions including The General, Sherlock Jr. and Steamboat Bill, is an all-time wonder among filmmakers and actors. More impressive yet, Keaton played the parts and more, combining his famous agility with the management skills required to run a small studio, write scripts and direct his films.

The Great Buster is as well-timed a release as anything can be at the moment, situated one hundred and twenty-five years after Keaton’s birth and months after some of his works entered the public domain. Oscar-nominated writer-director Peter Bogdanovich does a complete and seemingly effortless job in telling the Keaton story, with the assistance of historians and authors as well as contemporaries Dick Van Dyke, Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner and more.

But to the film’s detriment, nothing included here is anywhere near as good as when the footage of Keaton’s films is allowed to play uninterrupted and un-analysed. And although Keaton’s life was undoubtedly interesting, The Great Buster chooses to somewhat whitewash the uglier elements of his character, which enabled a string of extra-marital affairs and a tragic alcoholism that took years from his mid-life. Buster Keaton was no saint, but with masses of testimony from the likes of Bill Hader and Johnny Knoxville along the lines of “Remember when he did…?”, The Great Buster often feels like a missed opportunity to go deeper.

The Great Buster: A Celebration is showing at the Genesis Cinema on September 29. It is now available to own on Blu-ray and DVD.

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