The Great Buster: A Celebration

You might only have a few more days to catch this at the Ken Cinema. If you’re a film lover, you probably should. In fact, the amount of young filmmakers I meet (whether at the San Diego International Film Festival, or other events), that love Quentin Tarantino and name him as their favorite director, always amazes me. Well, they should see the person Tarantino loves and speaks highly of; as do other great filmmakers like Werner Herzog and Mel Brooks. Of course, you hear from some funny comedic minds like French Stewart, Richard Lewis, Nick Kroll, Carl Reiner, and Bill Hader. And the one who did Buster Keaton’s eulogy, a year to the exact day (and in the same chapel) after he delivered the eulogy for Stan Laurel (Laurel and Hardy) — TV legend Dick Van Dyke.

Sometimes in documentaries like this, I find the lesser known names have some of the more interesting stories. In this, that would be character actor Paul Dooley. The thrill he got for working with him in a commercial, and the clip of that spot, is fantastic.

Now, it seemed like Cybil Shepherd was a bit out of place in all this, but hey … Peter Bogdanovich wrote and directed this (he and Shepherd did The Last Picture Show, Daisy Miller, and At Long Last Love together and dated).

My wife found it odd that Johnny Knoxville (Jackass) was in this, but his pratfalls and crazy stunts are a modern day version of Keaton; he even tries to recreate the stunt where a house falls on Keaton (from Steamboat Bill, Jr.), but it’s the open window that keeps him from being smashed. Knoxville’s version didn’t go so well.

This documentary is a great celebration of one of the biggest stars of the silent film era. He was a comedian, stuntman, writer, director, and star of many shorts and features in the 1920s. His career was stalled when “talkies” made their way to the big screen. Now, that doesn’t mean he didn’t make his appearance in some of those movies, and we get to see clips of those, too.

Bogdanovich, who also narrates, implies that it was studio heads at MGM that were largely responsible for Keaton’s career being derailed. I think it was the perfect storm of everything. He was becoming an alcoholic, and things were changing in Hollywood. The physical comedy of a Keaton, Chaplin, or Harold Lloyd wasn’t as necessary when you could actually have actors speaking dialogue. Sure, it didn’t help that the pictures he was in for MGM were bad.

Keaton got his start in vaudeville, and it was bizarre to find out how he became a part of his parents’ act (as well as claims of child abuse because of how he was thrown around on stage).

It was a bit more interesting to Google and find out about his three wives, but this documentary covers his third wife Eleanor extensively. She was half his age, and they met while she was a dancer on a show he was writing for. She helped him curb his drinking (to a degree), and seemed to worship the ground he walked on. I believe she was instrumental in getting him to do so many TV appearances (Ed Sullivan, This is Your Life, etc.) in the ‘60s.

I’m not sure how I felt about the third act of the documentary. It features various highlights of the films, and it’s a blast, but it felt out of place. It’s almost like somebody requested more archival footage, and they decided to tack on another 45 minutes. It seems those clips could’ve been worked in better earlier.

I was surprised to find out that it was Fatty Arbuckle that helped Keaton get his start, and that after all of Arbuckle’s legal troubles — it was Keaton who hired him, under a different name, on a big picture. [For those that don’t know, Arbuckle was Hollywood’s first major scandal. He was accused of raping and killing a woman in his hotel room].

I was also surprised that Keaton lost a lot of hearing in one ear from an accident in World War I.

This is the type of documentary the whole family can enjoy — from the 10-year-old son that knows nothing about him, to your grandfather that will remember his parents loving his stuff.

3 ½ stars out of 5.

UPDATE, with San Diego Fun Fact: A guy I play racquetball with lives in Talmadge. He told me after he read my review, that Buster Keaton’s first wife Natalie Talmadge (and the mother of his two kids), had two movie star sisters that had moved down here. At one time it was called the “Movie Girl Subdivision.”

Her two sisters, Constance and Norma, were top Hollywood stars during the silent film era.

For a time, Norma was the top female box office star. Natalie was known for spending a lot of Buster’s money, on mansions in Beverly Hills, and other elaborate things. She never left the area, but the two sisters started buying property in the “Talmadge Park” development on the eastern edge of town, just past Kensington and Normal Heights. Another investor here was Sid Grauman, who you might know more for his other property — Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, which has all the handprints and footprints of the stars in Los Angeles. The sisters didn’t find success in movies once they went to “talkies” but they made money with real estate. A few of the restaurants and businesses in Talmadge have photos of them on the walls, some even with Buster, who came down when the area was created. One sister lived here until her passing in 1973, the other until 1969. And even though people in Hollywood might not remember these stars, there names will never be forgotten by some in San Diego. The ones that live on the three streets named after them.