Peter Bogdanovich passed away at the age of 82 this past January. Aside from directing such amazing classic films like The Last Picture Show (1971), What’s Up Doc? (1972) and Paper Moon (1973), Bogdanovich was known for being a fan of Classic Hollywood. In the TCM podcast, I’m Still Peter Bogdanovich, he talks about how he was a fan of the Golden Age from a young age, having been introduced to the silent comedians: Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton from a very young age. This love of movies eventually led to Bogdanovich keeping a file of 4″ x 6″ index cards where he’d record his thoughts about the movies he’d seen. When he was a young adult, he worked as a programmer at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City where he’d schedule film retrospectives of Old Hollywood directors like Orson Welles, John Ford, and Alfred Hitchcock. He eventually developed a friendship with Welles.
Throughout Bogdanovich’s sometimes tumultuous career, he always maintained a love of Classic Hollywood. He was considered a film historian, having written multiple books and conducted many interviews with prominent figures in Classic Hollywood. One of his best documentaries is the one he finished toward the end of his career– The Great Buster: A Celebration, which premiered in 2018 and was distributed on blu ray by Cohen Media Group.
The Great Buster: A Celebration is a fantastic documentary. Bogdanovich’s narration is perfect for the subject. It is obvious that he loves Buster Keaton as much as we do. He also includes some wonderful interviews with people like Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, and Dick Van Dyke. There are countless other interviews included, but the three I mentioned are my favorites. The documentary has a somewhat conventional narrative, the film starts with Buster’s birth on October 4, 1895 and concludes Buster’s story with his passing on February 1, 1966. However, Bogdanovich manages to change things up a bit by devoting a large portion of the documentary on the ten films considered to be Buster’s masterpieces.
I appreciate that Bogdanovich presented a balanced look at Buster’s life. He didn’t choose to only focus on the good, nor did he only focus on the bad. Buster’s rise to fame is covered, as well as the monumental career mistake he made in the late 1920s when he agreed to sign with MGM—against the advice of his contemporaries like Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. This decision killed Buster’s career because he lost his autonomy. The Cameraman (1928) is the first film that Buster made under his new MGM contract, and while it is funny and has its moments (I like it, I own the Criterion), and Buster was able to direct, it is nothing like the films he made previously. Bogdanovich gives some space to Buster’s subsequent alcohol issue; but doesn’t dwell on it. I loved that a fair amount of time was devoted to Buster’s childhood. The idea that Buster’s parents were big successes on the vaudeville circuit because their act literally involved throwing their child (Buster) around the stage is hysterical. Buster’s parents had a suitcase handle sewn into Buster’s shirt so he’d be easier to throw.
I loved seeing the footage of Buster’s later career–especially his appearances in commercials and on Candid Camera. I could watch Buster Keaton on Candid Camera all day. He was hilarious. I was happy to see that even late in life, Buster was going through a renaissance. His services were still in demand and people still found his work funny. Even now, almost 100 years after Buster’s films, he is still funny. I just saw The General in the theater a few months ago with a live organ accompaniment, and the theater was packed. The jokes in The General were still funny now as they were then. It was wonderful to see how many people still had an interest in not only classic film, but silent film, but most of all, wanted to see Buster Keaton. The fact that The General was filmed in my home state of Oregon and I saw the film at a theater in Oregon probably helped too.
I highly recommend Peter Bogdanovich’s documentary, The Great Buster: A Celebration to anyone who loves Buster Keaton, or loves a great documentary in general. It is funny, it is poignant, it is inspirational, and it’s just plain entertaining. Bogdanovich includes lots of great scenes of all of Buster’s funniest gags and even some funny pictures of Buster when he was a child in vaudeville. It is obvious from watching this documentary that it was made by someone who loves Buster Keaton and appreciates his brand of comedy.
Bogdanovich asserts that the 10 films that Buster made in the 1920s when he was his own production studio (Buster Keaton Productions) were his masterpieces. These 10 films are:
- Three Ages (1923)
- Our Hospitality (1923)
- Sherlock, Jr. (1924)
- The Navigator (1924)
- Seven Chances (1925)
- Go West (1925)
- Battling Butler (1926)
- The General (1926)
- College (1927)
- Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)
I haven’t seen all of Buster’s masterpieces, but I can say that of the ones I have seen: Our Hospitality, Sherlock Jr., The General, and Steamboat Bill, Jr., Buster Keaton’s films fully deserve the adjective “masterpieces.” Sherlock Jr., in particular is fascinating for the amount of practical special effects used in this film. Some of the special effects are still fascinating now, and it’s been almost 98 years!