Buster Keaton: moments of comic genius. TV tribute gives an often overlooked artist his due

Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow ``American Masters,'' PBS, tomorrow, 9-11 p.m., and Nov. 25, 9-10 p.m. Writer/producers: Kevin Brownlow and David Gill. Narration: Lindsay Anderson. A Thames Television production in association with Raymond Rohauer, curator of Keaton Archives. Think of a silent-film comedian.

Almost everyone thinks of Charlie Chaplin. A few might think of Harold Lloyd. But the comic genius of Buster Keaton is too often forgotten.

This ``American Masters'' profile, however, may strike the opening drumbeat of a revisionist fanfare for the man who is usually regarded as just a slapstick comedian, whose main contribution to film was his ability to look sour and take funny falls.

Now Kevin Brownlow and David Gill, who together created and produced the three-part ``Unknown Chaplin'' miniseries seen last season on ``American Masters,'' have come up with a brilliant portrait of a quintessential clown. Theirs is a loving but incisive reminiscence of Keaton, a man who learned early in life that he had to be serious to get laughs.

Keaton was, in a sense, abused for much of his life - though not, as has been suspected, by his parents, who threw him about lovingly in their vaudeville act. He was abused by a world that refused to give him artistic control over much of his work, by extravagant wives, and by a profession that didn't acclaim his genius until very late in his life, when it was too late for him to do his best work. He was also a victim of alcohol abuse.

But while the hard facts are there, that's not what ``A Hard Act to Follow'' is all about. It's about magic pratfalls and choreographed movement, inspired comic moments and brilliantly conceived sketches. It is filled with people who remember Keaton's joyful sadness and his joyless happiness, his inability to cope with change in his private and professional lives, and his humble amazement when his genius was finally recognized.

The film overflows with footage of Keaton doing what he does best, in scenes from ``The General,'' ``Our Hospitality,'' ``The Navigator,'' ``Three Ages,'' and many other films.

By the time this unique tribute has run its course, you will have cried almost as much as you will have laughed. But it will be the tears of laughter, brought on by the brilliant, skillfully choreographed, meticulously executed moments of comic genius, that you will treasure most.

A chat with Brownlow and Gill

A long-forgotten 1964 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation interview with Keaton helps bring this film to life like no other silent-screen biography, according to the British writer-producer team of Gill and Brownlow. They were able to purchase the rights to use the interview throughout the special's three hours.

``Keaton's talent was just being rediscovered in the 1960s,'' says Brownlow, a film historian who is known with Gill for their 13-part ``Hollywood'' series, as well as for ``Unknown Chaplin.'' ``For most of the time, he was not considered in the same league as Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd.''

The turn against sentimentality, which worked against Chaplin and Lloyd in the 1940s, didn't really affect Keaton very much, they point out. ``Early on in his career,'' says Gill, a one-time ballet dancer, ``he discovered that if he didn't smile he got better laughs.''

Why was there such a run of successful screen comedians during the 1920s? ``Well, Chaplin proved that comedy was commercial,'' says Gill. ``So all the other producers were looking for comedians. That accounts for it.''

Though reluctant to compare Keaton with Chaplin, Brownlow and Gill observe that Chaplin was the more naturalistic, while Keaton was much more controlled and choreographed. ``Of all the comedians,'' says Brownlow, ``he made the fullest use of film. His talents as a filmmaker were remarkable.''

Chaplin, Keaton, and Fatty Arbuckle were all able to direct their own films, something nobody but Woody Allen manages to do today. How did that come about?

``In those days, directing was not considered anything special,'' says Brownlow. ``So the money men allowed the comedians to control their own films by assuming the role of director.''

Both men agree that if there is one person today who comes closest to the talent of Buster Keaton, it is Woody Allen. Will they be doing a film biography of Allen soon?

They laugh. ``Well, we have another film in mind right now,'' says Brownlow. ``Maybe he'll come later.'' While they refuse to divulge the subject of the third film, they have already spoken of the triumvirate of Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd. So only Lloyd remains to be immortalized on TV by the team of Brownlow and Gill, prime electronic biographers of Hollywood.

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