Synopsis by Hal Erickson
Originally telecast on PBS as a three-part American Masters presentation, Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow uses film clips and interviews to trace the life and career of legendary comedian Buster Keaton (1895-1966). Born into a family of vaudevillians, Keaton entered films as a member of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle's comedy troupe in 1917. Three years later, producer Joseph Schenck promoted Keaton to his own series of two-reelers. There he gained fame as "the Great Stone Face," confronting life's pleasure and perils with nary a smile or a grimace on his countenance. He also earned the respect of the movie industry for his willingness to go the distance for a good gag. Moving into features in 1923, Keaton continued turning out such classics as Sherlock Jr. (1924) and The General (1926). On the advice of Schenck, Keaton gave up his independence to join MGM in 1928. Though his films still made money, he was given very little say in their creation. Frustrated by this, and plagued by marital difficulties, Keaton turned increasingly to drink. Fired by MGM in 1933, Keaton was reduced to appearing in cheap short subjects. After a humiliating period as a 300-dollar-per-week MGM gag writer, Keaton began mounting a fabulous comeback, regaining full stature in the 1950s and '60s via TV appearances and movie guest-star roles. He also found lasting happiness with his third wife, Eleanor Norris. A Hard Act to Follow was assembled by silent film historians Kevin Brownlow and David Gill, and narrated by Malcolm McDowell.