Director Peter Bogdanovich begins his documentary on the silent comedy star Buster Keaton with a clip from The Dick Cavett Show of decades before, where Bogdanovich was a guest, alongside Golden Age director Frank Capra. In the clip, they briefly discuss Keaton and Capra points out that the kind of wild slapstick popular in silent comedy went out of fashion when cartoons essentially stepped in and filled that entertainment slot, but the rest of this film goes on to ponder whether something was lost from the transition to sound and a more powerful studio system that certainly muffled Keaton's once-boundless ingenuity. But mostly it is all about the clips, and lots of them, as we are taken on a tour of Keaton's work and life story...
Bogdanovich was a huge fan of film from his early years, to the extent that he made sure to get to know as many directors and stars of the Golden Age as he could when he was a young man, planning to apply their wisdom to the work he was producing as a director himself. One who he wished he had gotten to know better was The Great Stoneface, Keaton, so this effort could be regarded as partly making amends for that in his conscience, and his narration lauded the comic at every opportunity. The structure was simple: start with just over an hour of his subject's biography, lavishly illustrated with as many bits and pieces from his filmography and talking heads as they could amass, then finally in the last half hour allow the clips to take over and speak for themselves.
There is an entirely unfair comparison made by some that there was a rivalry between Keaton and Charlie Chaplin (and to a lesser extent Harold Lloyd and Harry Langdon) which is supposed to pit their fans against one another in a never-resolved argument over who was best. The Keaton fans are the snobs who point to his technical brilliance, while the Chaplin fans are basically Communists who are captivated by his championing of the proletariat, or that's the way it is supposed to go, when the real nub of the discussion should be who was funniest? For that, there was no easy answer, they were both brilliant talents who changed the face of world entertainment, though Keaton has in latter years gained the critical upper hand thanks to endorsements by the likes of Jackie Chan.
Happily, Bogdanovich was not interested in getting into a game of one-upmanship, and though Keaton was his subject, when Chaplin was mentioned it was with complete respect. But this was designed to give Buster his due, and therefore did not dig too deep into the analysis, preferring to highlight what he felt was the comedian's finest work while indulging in poignancy for his story was by no means a happy one. Everyone here blames MGM for ruining Keaton's run of success by not allowing him to write and direct his own material, and there's an undercurrent of resentment towards the studio system that knew the price of everything and the value of nothing, as the old phrase goes, but you do wonder if Buster would have self-sabotaged anyway. He comes across as a very modest man, but easily swayed by those around him for all his brilliance; it is satisfying to witness him enjoy his autumn years as the adulation he deserved finally appeared, but wondering what might have been after his incredible body of work in the nineteen-twenties had things gone far better is undeniably sobering. Overall, a very decent primer for a titan of silent cinema.