The Great Buster: A Celebration
by writer/director Peter Bogdanovich
I first saw Buster Keaton while I was five or six years old when my father took me to New York’s Museum of Modern Art, where they often showed silent pictures. My father had a nostalgic connection to these films because he had grown up with them: when sound arrived, my father was 30 years old. At MoMA, I was first introduced to Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith, but I remember that Buster got the biggest laughs of any of the silent comedians. He was also the least sentimental.
So when Charles Cohen, of the Cohen Media Group, asked me if I would like to make a documentary about Keaton, I jumped at the chance. I had already done a kind of homage to Keaton with an extensive chase in my 1972 film What’s Up, Doc? The 12-minute, million-dollar sequence was clearly inspired by Keaton’s work, and became the highlight, and most-liked section, in the picture.
Mr. Cohen owns the rights to all the great Keaton work—19 two-reelers (20 mins. each) and 10 features—all made between 1920 and 1928, the final year of the silent era. Because Keaton never again regained the independence and freedom that he had in those years, almost all of his subsequent work is disappointing and not up to the standard he set in the ‘20s.
As a result, I decided to celebrate Buster and not complain too much about the injustices he endured after his golden decade. So, following the old show business maxim—“always leave ‘em laughing”—we decided to save exploring the 10 features for the last part of the film, as opposed to where they would be placed in chronological order.
Luckily, the Venice Film Festival had done a tribute to Buster a year before he died, and therefore we were able to ignore strict chronology and return to his greatest work at the end of the film. Because, as our title indicates, our documentary is basically a celebration of “The Great Buster,” the most enduring of the silent comics, and among the best directors of comedy in picture history.