JB: The second of what was to become a series of three superb documentaries on the great silent comedians, A HARD ACT TO FOLLOW explores the career of Buster Keaton. Like the previous UNKNOWN CHAPLIN, A HARD ACT TO FOLLOW is separated into three parts. Part one covers his days in vaudeville, his film apprenticeship with Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, and his solo shorts and early features. Part Two concentrates on his later features (curiously skipping COLLEGE completely), the critical failure of THE GENERAL and his move to MGM. The final part, in some ways the most fascinating, follows the ups and downs and up agains of his career after MGM dumped him, and his eventual rediscovery.
Lacking the outtake footage that made UNKNOWN CHAPLIN such a revelation, A HARD ACT TO FOLLOW nevertheless does not lack for fascinating footage. Aside from generous clips from many of his films, the film features interviews with many of his contemporaries, including his widow Eleanor, as well as behind the scenes photographs and film clips, especially of the making of THE GENERAL. As they would do in their next film, HAROLD LLOYD: THE THIRD GENIUS, Kevin Brownlow and David Gill expose the camera angle trickery of some of the stunts Keaton did in his films, such as the waterfall rescue in OUR HOSPITALITY, which was actually filmed on a set built over Keaton's own swimming pool.
The final hour of the film documents the fall of Keaton's career, when as a MGM player, he was forced to do many talkies - most quite successful at the box office! - that took little advantage of his prodigious creative talents. It then follows his side trips into the cheap but sometimes amusing shorts he did for Educational and later Columbia studios, his employment as one of Hollywood's most reliable gag men, and his eventual return to the movies. There are many delightful clips of Keaton on television, both in entertainment programs and commercials. Thankfully, the film documents the last years of Keaton's life where he was finally recognized rightfully as one of the great filmmakers and comedians of all time, once his films were rediscovered, saved and shown once again to appreciative audiences.
If you are a Buster Keaton fan, you must have this documentary in your collection, along with BUSTER KEATON RIDES AGAIN, which A HARD ACT TO FOLLOW excerpts extensively. - JB