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4.3 out of 5 stars
Buster Keaton - A Hard Act To Follow [DVD]
Format: DVD|Change
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on 21 March 2010
Here in the US, I first saw BUSTER KEATON: A HARD ACT TO FOLLOW on my local PBS station about twenty years ago. I recorded it and watched that grainy videotape over and over again, and since I never purchased the original VHS release, this was all I had. So when DVDs became popular, I eagerly awaited a release, especially after UNKNOWN CHAPLIN was released for Region 1. Time passed, there was no Region 1 release, so after I got a region-free DVD player and learned HARD ACT TO FOLLOW was available in Region 2, I took the plunge.

Sadly, my enjoyment at finally having this on DVD was marred by disappointment and annoyance at what appear to be inexplicable changes -- mostly deletions -- to the program. Below are some of the changes from what I remember of my tape of the original PBS telecast. I never saw the original VHS release but I doubt these changes would have occurred at that time:

--All onscreen titles, identifying film and TV show clips and persons speaking, have been removed. The only title remaining is at the end of Episode 3, where the dates of Buster's life are superimposed over a still photo. (One can go to YouTube and find clips of this program with the titles intact.)
--In Episode 3, an animation demonstrating how the "jump through the washerwoman" effect from SHERLOCK, JR. was achieved has been deleted. It was originally shown during an onscreen interview with Donald O'Connor, and now there is a noticeable film jump in the interview where the animation used to be.
--In Episode 3, a photo of Buster holding his honorary Academy Award has been deleted and replaced with a duplicated shot of a decaying film reel. (Metaphor perhaps?)
--In Episode 1, a "zero in" effect used to highlight Buster's minor additional role as a cop in a Fatty Arbuckle comedy has been removed.
--In Episode 1, a clip from SHERLOCK, JR. of Buster falling off the back of the motorcycle has been slowed down almost to slow motion, so that the action no longer syncs up with Carl Davis' orchestral punctuation.
--One of several DVD glitches throughout the series occurs in Episode 1 during a photo montage of the Fatty Arbuckle trial. We see a single frame of some elderly interviewee, who appears at no other time during the series. I don't even remember seeing him in the original telecast.

These may sound like nitpicky points, but are there any explanations for these alterations? Why has this wonderful program been butchered, for lack of a better word? I can only hope that, if and when Brownlow & Gill's HOLLYWOOD and/or HAROLD LLOYD: THE THIRD GENIUS is released, it will escape a similar fate.

***EDIT*** Apparently this DVD used a workprint of the documentary and NOT the final version. See Mr T Hamilton's comment below for details.
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on 4 April 2006
Beautifully made, this three-part 150 minute documentary is essential viewing for anyone who loves, or is interested in Keaton's life and work. Copiously illustrated with extracts from his film and television work plus insightful and informative interviews with many people who knew him, including Raymond Rohauer and Buster's last wife, the lovely Eleanor Keaton. Superb original score by Carl Davis and intelligent narration takes you through Buster's life with great intelligence and sensitivity. The final moments are very moving. Only the packaging design leaves something to be desired, looking to my eyes rather drab and unenticing.
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on 5 July 2016
Wonderful Doc on the Life of A Silent great,with interviews from those who knew him.A Brilliant examination of a troubled and Talented genius.
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on 30 January 2010
Most of us think of Buster Keaton and remember him in films such us The Navigator or The General,this great documentary sheds light on these and other of his great silent films.I was very surprised to learn how badly he was treated by his peers with the dawn of the talking era especialy the way MGM studios did not let him harness his talent,but instead controled his films in away that did not let him show his best.This made him very unhappy and unfulfilled for a part of his career but later generations soon re-discovered his silent era films and now he is rightly considered one of the best of the silent comedy greats.
I highly recomend this film together with a great companion piece "Unknown Chaplin" also by Kevin Brownlow.
Also looking much forward to the release of "Hollywood" soon to be released on DVD.
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on 29 August 2017
A wonderful account of Buster Keaton's life and work. It's an absolute must for anyone with an interest in the silent movie era.
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on 6 May 2016
Good value, arrived on time.
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on 2 December 2007
One of the most satisfying and enjoyable documentaries I've ever seen. I think the other reviewers have covered all the details for me already. I simply want to make sure my 5 stars are added to the total because they were never so well-deserved. This three-episode disc is an absolute must for anyone with even the vaguest interest in film history, or for that matter, the vaguest sense of humour. Just plain wonderful.
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on 22 January 2015
Utterly fantastic
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HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERon 12 March 2009
From the same stable as the superb Unknown Chaplin and the legendary Hollywood series, this three-part 1987 TV series is easily the best documentary on the great stone-faced comedian, and comes with the added advantage of a wealth of radio and television interview material with the man himself to draw on. Yet it suffers somewhat in comparison despite highlights such as its comprehensive account of the making of The General, which includes interviews with extras and sightseers at the film's spectacular battle scene, as well as home movie footage of Keaton at work. Partially this is due to its tendency toward the 'sad clown' approach that is, if not hidden, at least bolstered by its attention to detail, but perhaps more importantly it at times gives the feeling of preaching to the converted. Where their Hollywood TV series was an eye-opener that managed to completely dispel the patronising contempt or superiority many felt for silent cinema by restoring it to its original element, here Kevin Brownlow and David Gill take Keaton's genius too much for granted.

Still, while many of the extracts aren't likely to make any new converts, they do illustrate the extraordinary technical precision and danger involved in shooting them. Consequently, the extraordinarily accomplished scene where Buster is trapped within the film in Sherlock Junior is dealt with in depth, but the simpler, and much funnier, billiard sequence that demonstrates a different kind of cinematic imagination is completely absent. As a result, while Keaton's fans will find much to embrace, as an introduction to his work it to the uninitiated it tends to marginalise him as more of an inspired craftsman than a great comic.

If many of the warmest and funniest moments of his silent work are missing, so too is the star's Beach Blanket Bingo era when he turned up in bit parts in teen movies, or his TV work, such as his Twilight Zone episode that boasted a couple of outstanding pieces of physical comedy). Even A Funny Thing Happened to Me On the Way to the Forum seems tagged on as an afterthought, leaving a slight impression of, not so much rewriting history, but at the very least ignoring the bits which don't gel with his critical rediscovery at that time.

Highly recommended nonetheless, it does make you hungry to see more of the man's work. Despite the age of the material, picture quality is excellent throughout, with the extracts being shown at the correct speed, while full credits for all three episodes are retained. Carl Davis' sympathetic scoring works well, with the extracts from his score for The General a particular highlight.
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on 19 January 2014
Kevin Brownlow is one of my heroes and Buster Keaton is one of my obsessions so there was no chance that I wasn't going to adore this wonderful set of documentaries - and if you also factor in Carl Davies' unforgettable Buster theme and the music he wrote for the clips, you've got something approaching heaven in my book. Brownlow and Gill treat their subject with intelligent respect and reverential humour, using archive footage, photographs and amateur film to supplement the footage of Buster's films. I really like the fact that they used a lot of Buster's own voice as commentary - he had a fabulous voice which contrasts brilliantly with the clipped and polished narration of Lindsay Anderson. If I hadn't been totally smitten with BK before, this DVD would certainly have tipped me over the edge! Well worth a look.
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