"It may not have been Houdini who said it, but what the hell," Peter Bogdanovich says, in the voice of the Official Narrator, early in his joyous The Great Buster: A Celebration. He's referring to the claim that the name Buster came from Harry Houdini, a friend of Keaton's vaudevillian parents, who is purported to have offered it up as praise for the striking way the youngest member of the The Three Keatons took a tumble onstage -- as a toddler. "That was a real buster!" the storied magician is said to have exclaimed.
Bogdanovich's cheery uncertainty befits a film with that subtitle of A Celebration. He's in print-the-legend mode, evangelizing a greater truth, one beyond mere fact-checking. Despite some talking-head testimonials from Carl Reiner, Johnny Knoxville, Leonard Maltin and Richard Lewis, The Great Buster at heart is an opportunity to hang with Bogdanovich as he screens favorite sequences from ol' stone face's 1920s two- and five-reel masterpieces. It's a relaxed study of greatness, of exquisite physical comedy, of how'd-he-do-that stunt work, of a vigorous cinema artist who saw new and enduring possibilities for his medium.
Always a showman, Bogdanovich shrewdly, brazenly upends the usual life-passing-by structure of such docs to close with what we want most, a lengthy appreciation of Keaton's feature-length mid-1920s work. Bogdanovich selects his highlights judiciously, gushes over them warmly and perhaps inevitably manages to work in an appearance from his old pal Orson Welles, introducing The General. Who could have guessed, back in the 1970s, that in 2018 we'd see a new Welles picture costarring Bogdanovich (The Other Side of the Wind) and a new Bogdanovich film with a Welles cameo?