Despite the fact that I consider myself a pretty knowledgeable film watcher I have to admit I knew precious little about silent film star, Buster Keaton, before watching this documentary by French director Jean-Baptiste Peretie. This was an eye opening education for me. That is what is great about a festival like FIFA – it gives you a chance to see films you would have never had the opportunity to see otherwise and introduces you to things/people/subjects you knew little to nothing about before.
Buster Keaton, along with Charlie Chaplin, was one of the biggest comedic film stars and filmmakers during the 1920s and silent picture era. During that decade he worked continuously making film after film. His creative well never seemed to go dry. Working as an independent filmmaker afforded him the freedom to make the films he wanted in the manner he saw fit. And the man was a genius. A mind so creative and a body so flexible (he could fall a million times without hurting himself) resulted in films the public loved.
Understanding where film has come from is important to understanding where it is going. A figure like Buster Keaton is an essential one in the history of American film. He is still widely considered one of the best directors and film stars of all time. He made his mark. Unfortunately, Hollywood was not as generous with him. MGM, Louis B. Mayer and the Hollywood studio system were not good to Keaton. They beat down the genius inside of him and some say that led to his heavy drinking, loss of his wife and kids and his career.
When working for himself on his own films, this director, actor, producer, stuntman, and engineer could go anywhere his imagination took him. Rarely a misstep highlights the early part of his career from the 1920s. He made a fortune, married a woman, had two children, drove fancy cars, wore expensive clothes, and lived in a huge mansion in Beverly Hills. That all went down the drain quickly once Buster Keaton signed a contract with the studio MGM at the insistence of his brother-in-law.
MGM was run by Louis B. Mayer at this point and his word was the final one. The contract signed by Keaton pretty much stripped him of his voice and input in regards to the films he starred in. The calibre of films he starred in suffered as a result. Keaton became more and more frustrated by his lack of input and artistic freedom. He was just another actor; a piece of meat with which MGM could do as they wish with.
His frustrations rose as his star faded. Drinking became his escape. The heavy drinking led to him losing his wife and kids. His career was in the toilet. No one wanted to work with him. He began to not show up at work. This led to a pink slip signed by Mayer himself. Buster Keaton, as talented as he was, became another out of work actor/director. Career in a shambles.
Director Peretie shows that this comedy was actually a tragedy. That Hollywood did not make a star of Buster Keaton, rather it quashed that star swiftly and totally. All fat is trimmed off the story and in 52 short minutes the film tells the sad tale. It is quick and a times a little superficial, but still educational.