Saturday, June 11, 2011

IOU: Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow (1987)

Who I Owe: I met illustrator/author Matt Phelan recently at Book Expo. The company I work for publishes some of his books for children. Phelan told me that he was currently working on a graphic novel for younger kids on the childhood of Buster Keaton (see a preview of the artwork for the book here). I got really excited because I love Buster Keaton! We chatted about Keaton for a while and he told me about this great documentary on the life of Keaton called Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow. He mentioned that it was available on YouTube and I promised that I would watch it. And so I did! Thanks Matt Phelan for the recommendation and I'm so excited for your book to come out!

Review: Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow was a 3 part British TV Mini-Series about the life and career of the great physical comedian of the silent film era. Watching the documentary and I realize how much I appreciate contemporary documentaries and how they clearly indicate who it is that is being interviewed. It took me a while to understand that it was Eleanor Keaton, Keaton's third and last wife, speaking!

The show follows Keaton's life and career from the very beginning to the bitter end. It starts in those early days in Vaudeville, when he got the name Buster after falling down some stairs, an event witnessed by the great Harry Houdini who then proclaimed that that was quite a Buster! We see the rise, the very bad fall and then the subsequent slow rise again.

I learned many things about Keaton. He had impeccable timing, a fearlessness that made for incredible shots, a talent for subtlety and a genius for comedy. Keaton was really an actor destined for the silent screen and talkies did him very few favors. He took to alcohol which almost killed him and even with all his success he still had many money problems. However, he still had a wonderful career, fame and recognition that lasted a lot longer than he expected and a long and fruitful life. That's a lot more than many of us get. It was great to watch the documentary and to see how spectacular his stunts really were. Put into context of how dangerous and groundbreaking they were makes you really appreciate Keaton's work. Keaton never complained about injuries! He had a high threshold for pain. Seeing snippets of many of Keaton's films made me want to watch more. And it made a new Keaton fan out of Carlos too!

I created a playlist of all the 10 minute YouTube segments of the documentary. You can watch it here. I'd love to hear what you think. And many thanks to Matt Phelan for recommending this to me!


  1. Buster is my favorite comic-silent-star. Thanks for the post (and for the follow on twitter!)

  2. I love Buster Keaton! Even though he was famous for keeping a straight face, I actually think his face was very expressive in a subtle way. No one can play a downtrodden or luckless silent hero like him. I can't wait to see Matt Phelan's book.

  3. keaton is my fave of all the screen comedians silent or sound and has been ever since i was a wee lad. that doc is great, i saw it when it originally aired many moons ago on PBS, tho i know what you mean sometiems it takes a bit to realize WHO is talking. i think my fave of the whole thing are those clips of him on Candid Camera when he was older, omg talk about side splitting laughter!!! must see keaton are: the General, Sherlock jr, Stramboat bill jr and pretty much any short film he ever made. also worth checking out is the collection of keaton and Arbuckle on dvd. Fatty is an aquired taste at best but it is really cool to see keaton AND his dad doing some rioutous insane slapstick together. honestly i cant even understand HOW they did that stuff, its amazing! come to think of it, pretty much anything he made that was silent is must see! :D


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