Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow: A Hard Act to Follow
This Fall, Cohen Media Group - which controls the collection of the late Raymond Rohauer - is touring a new documentary by Peter Bogdanovich called The Great Buster, covering the art and career of Buster Keaton, one of the few silent film stars whose work continues to resonate meaningfully with audiences nearly a century after it was produced.
Bogdanovich’s documentary has primarily been produced to help promote Cohen’s 4K restorations of Keaton’s finest classics. It’s welcome news that Keaton will be able to be viewed by a new generation and this documentary will help promote that.
Hooray!! Except the perfect documentary about Buster Keaton was produced. In 1987, Kevin Brownlow and the late David Gill wrote, produced and directed Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow for Thames Television, a three-part documentary narrated by Lindsay Anderson, a great filmmaker in his own right.
Behold, for example, this review from the New York Times written by John J. O'Connor. "The entire production is extraordinary" and Brownlow and Gill have "succeeded brilliantly."
My fear is that this brilliant and essential piece of work will be lost in the mists of time, and it would have been nice if Brownlow and Gill’s original documentary had been simply reworked, remastered and perhaps updated a little. Bogdanovich himself knows the value of simply updating a documentary, having revisited his 1971 documentary Directed by John Ford in 2006, adding new footage and most importantly, replacing old ratty clips with newly restored clips. He did not throw everything away to create a new documentary. He didn't have to. The original was quite wonderful and just needed to be updated.
It's the same with Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow, which runs three episodes for a total of two hours and thirty minutes that covers everything from Keaton's childhood to his final appearance on screen in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, a remarkable doc that features his rise, his fall, and his late-career resurgence. Featuring all kinds of interviews with Keaton himself and contemporaries that Brownlow and Gill were able to interview late in life, there is nothing missing here.
Bogdanovich would have few, if any, of these sources available. Brownlow and Gill’s documentaries in the ‘80s and ‘90s came along at the perfect time, when so many silent movie stars were still alive and able to give personal interviews.
I would have even been fine with Bogdanovich being the one in charge of revisiting the documentary if Brownlow has no desire to do so at this stage in his life. Kevin Brownlow is not only the most important film preservationist in history, but he also the ONLY film preservationist in history to receive an Academy Award for his lifetime of hard work, so it’s a bit of a shame that his remarkable, essential work was ignored.
FORTUNATELY, however, the work has not been consigned to the trash heap. It’s available on YouTube and while the quality of the image is far from desirable, it’s the best we have available at the moment and still an essential piece of film history.