Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 5, 2018

The Great Buster: A Celebration

Filed under: comedy,Film — louisproyect @ 7:56 pm

Opening today at the Quad Cinema in New York is a documentary on the life and work of Buster Keaton titled “The Great Buster: A Celebration”. Celebration is the operative term since it is a heart-felt tribute to a great comedian and filmmaker whose best films were made in the 1920s and stopped abruptly just at the time “talkies” began. What happened to Keaton? Why didn’t his career continue to flourish? We learn from Peter Bogdanovich, who produced, directed and was the narrator of the film, that it was studio executives at MGM who were responsible.

To understand what happened, it is best to consider a more recent example of how commercialism can trump art. In many ways, Jackie Chan was the Buster Keaton of our era. In dozens of films made in Hong Kong, he combined comedy and action in films that capitalized on the haplessness of his character who always triumphed in the end. Like other highly successful Hong Kong cinema luminaries such as John Woo, he was lured by the big bucks to begin making Hollywood films that were lead-footed duds even if they made money. In Keaton’s case, the films he made for MGM were so awful that they effectively destroyed his career. Additionally, it was his own alcoholism and the collapse of a marriage that led to his being hospitalized by what they used to call a “nervous breakdown”. He ended up being taken to a mental hospital in a straightjacket evoking the same fate of Jonathan Winters years later. In such cases, an abundance of talent can often cause collateral damage in a world that does not appreciate the comedian’s gift.

While the film was certainly obligated to tell this part of his story, most of it is upbeat and a treat to anybody young or old who has never seen a Keaton film. Along with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, Keaton made films that people will be enjoying centuries from now while Judd Apatow will likely be forgotten a few years after he has given up the ghost. Like Jackie Chan, Buster Keaton did all of his own stunts that were memorable not just for the great physical agility they took but how they served the narrative arc and character development. By contrast, the visual gags of most modern comedies are just thrown in after the fact to make sure the audience does not fall asleep.

Buster Keaton got started in vaudeville just like WC Fields, the Marx Brothers and other great comedians of the 20s and 30s. He started performing as a young kid whose parents integrated him into their act as the butt of what appeared to be child abuse. They threw him around mercilessly to the point that they were arrested for cruelty to children on occasion. However, he and his parents were skilled at making things look much worse than they really were, like professional wrestlers today. We see Keaton showing another comedian how to take a fall at one point, showing him how extended hands can soften the blow. Of course, just like professional wrestlers, he often suffered injuries carrying out a stunt. In one of them, he suffered a broken neck that he lived with for decades until a doctor asked him how he got it. Keaton replied that he had no idea he had a broken neck.

Between the thirties and forties, Keaton was a sad, neglected figure—a comic version of the character dramatized in Michel Hazanavicius’s neo-silent film “The Artist”. Things turned around in the fifties when he began making commercials and appearances on various TV shows, including Ed Sullivan’s variety show. None of them, of course, could compare to the great films he made in the 20s but they at least allowed him to live in comfort with his wife Eleanor who comes across as a guardian angel.

Eleanor Keaton was a good friend of Richard Lewis who is among the comedians that pay tribute to Keaton in the film. We hear Mel Brooks acknowledge Keaton as a major influence on his own classic comedies. Other filmmakers such as Werner Herzog and Quentin Tarantino having little connection to comedy describe Keaton as a great director, even transcending the comedy genre. One of the most unexpected fans is none other than Samuel Beckett who made a 1965 short titled “Film” that Keaton was happy to star in, even though he admitted he had no idea what it was about. Like just about everything else that once appeared on film, it can now be seen on the Internet and even for free.

3 Comments »

  1. “Along with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, Keaton made films that people will be enjoying centuries from now…” While I agree with the sentiment, I’m increasingly doubtful about our species’ ability to survive that long.

    Comment by Dennis Brasky — October 5, 2018 @ 11:46 pm

  2. “Jackie Chan was the Buster Keaton of our era. In dozens of films made in Hong Kong, he combined comedy and action in films that capitalized on the haplessness of his character who always triumphed in the end. Like other highly successful Hong Kong cinema luminaries such as John Woo, he was lured by the big bucks to begin making Hollywood films that were lead-footed duds even if they made money.”

    Would Rush Hour and its sequels be among those lucrative flops?

    As for Buster Keaton, I’m not that familiar with his work, but I suspect he had a Hawaii connection. I’ll look into that. Meanwhile, here’s an interesting article on tracking Keaton’s film locations.

    Comment by Poppa Zao — October 6, 2018 @ 6:22 pm

  3. Hi! Being a devoted follower of Buster Keaton for over 40 years I have read every single book about him, and there are many. I have never once seen Hawaii mentioned in any way, so I doubt very much that he even went there. What makes you suspect that he had connections there?

    Comment by Dag Vagsas — October 17, 2018 @ 3:53 pm


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