Director Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon) has long been known as leading Hollywood historian, having written books on such luminaries as Orson Welles, Howard Hawks, and John Ford among others. For his latest project, Bogdanovich directs and narrates, The Great Buster: A Celebration, a star-studded salute to Buster Keaton, one of the great silent era comedians. There were three–Charles Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Buster. The debate comes when deciding the definitive order. Wherever he falls, Keaton is an important figure in the development of physical comedy on film.

Bogdanovich employs an effective approach, telling Keaton’s life story in chronological order sans most of the 1920’s–Buster’s most successful period that cemented his legacy as one of the greatest actor/directors of the silent era–is saved for more significant analysis in the final section of the film.  While the earlier sections include scores of talking heads, photos of Buster, his family, newspaper clippings, and the odd film clip, the last section is more like a video essay. Using just a smattering of interviews, Bogdanovich lets Keaton’s films do the talking, showing clips ranging from 1923’s Three Ages to 1928’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. Bogdanovich’s narrative is unobtrusive, providing relevant details about each clip, never comparing the material to his own work.

The preceding segments are filled with a decidedly odd group of interview subjects. Of most interest is those that actually knew Buster Keaton; Now 104, Norman Lloyd tells a story about Charles Chaplin working with Keaton on Limelight (1952). Actor Paul Dooley (Breaking Away) also relates his experience as a young actor playing a Keystone cop in 1960’s car commercial featuring Buster. These anecdotes are illuminating and fun, as are the remarks of friends and fellow comedy legends Dick Van Dyke (Mary Poppins), Carl Reiner, and Mel Brooks (Young Frankenstein) Also interviewed, actor and Keaton friend James Karen, who died last year at the age of 94. Unfortunately, all these appearances are very brief, and left me wanting more.

Younger comics Bill Hader (Documentary Now!) and Johnny Knoxville (who has clearly studied Keaton’s physical comedy extensively), heap praise on their hero, but have little of substance to offer. The surprise here for me is comedian Richard Lewis. A longtime friend of Keaton’s widower Eleanor (she died in 1988), he offers some unique insights into Buster’s professional and personal life.

For those not familiar with Buster Keaton’s life and work, The Great Buster: A Celebration serves as a thorough introduction to one of the greatest silent comedy stars ever. For others, it will serve as a nice companion piece to Cohen Media’s upcoming Blu-ray releases of Keaton’s classic features.

Presented in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio (though clips from Keaton’s films are shown in their proper 1.33:1 aspect ratio), looks wonderful throughout. The DTS-HD Master Audio serves the film well, providing clean, clear, and concise dialogue throughout. There are no subtitles included.

The following extras are available:

  • Conversations from the Quad with Peter Bogdanovich (HD, 28:49) After some opening remarks from Charles Cohen, Bogdanovich is interviewed by Richard Pena.
  • Theatrical Trailer (HD, 1:50)