“The Cameraman” - Buster Keaton and Edward Sedgwick (1928)

The Cameraman (1928) was the last of Buster Keaton’s great silent-film features, which had earlier included Our Hospitality (1923), Sherlock Jr. (1924), The Navigator (1924), Seven Chances (1925), The General (1926), and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928).  This was also the first film he made with MGM Studios, after having made most of his earlier classics with his own hand-crafted production company.  The move to MGM may have seemed like a good option at the time, but Keaton later very much regretted it, since it led to a loss of his autonomy and restrictions on his creative options.  MGM insisted on having a finalized script prior to shooting and filming according to a tight shooting schedule, something that didn’t mesh with Keaton’s usual improvisational style.  So for The Cameraman, the studio assigned 22 writers to work on the script to ensure it would meet their professional standards [1].  However, for this first film for MGM, at least, Keaton managed to convince producer Irving Thalberg to let him scrap the studio’s script and let him do things his way.  The result was a hit at the box office and with the critics, but the subsequent increasing MGM restrictions on Keaton’s creativity, along with the coming of the sound-era in filmmaking, led to a relentless decline to Keaton’s career.

The story of The Cameraman concerns a would-be newsreel photographer and his efforts to break in to this exciting professional arena.  In those days newsreels, often with live, on-the-spot footage, were shown prior to the mean features at movie theaters.  Since these were in the days prior to television and electronic media, the newsreels were the only visual samplings the public had of newsworthy events taking place around the world, and they were immensely popular. So there was a premium placed on those intrepid newsreel photographers who could rush to a newsworthy, sometimes dangerous, event and capture what was happening on film.  Our film’s protagonist wants to engage in this heroic pursuit.
Our protagonist, of course, is played by Buster Keaton, who always portrays an ordinary, innocent, and naive young man who despite, his ill preparation and lack of resources, dauntlessly faces seemingly overwhelming challenges.  And as I have previously mentioned in earlier reviews of Keaton’s films, his narratives usually progress through three stages of intensity concerning the challenges to be faced:
  • the Quaint (the hopelessly naive and shy protagonist trying to play by the conservative  rules he has been brought up on),
  • the Slapstick (the protagonist encountering unexpected events and obstacles that result in one acrobatic pratfall after another), and
  • the Maelstrom (the protagonist(s) engulfed in a blizzard of existential threats arising from an inscrutable environment).
In The Cameraman, however, these phases are not so clearly marked, and, moreover, the maelstrom is not the culminating event of the story.  In addition, many of the slapstick occasions in this story seem to be just random occurrences that are not very closely connected to an overriding narrative.  Nevertheless, the film does manage to carry much of the characteristic Keatonesque charm.

The Cameraman’s story passes through four stages.

1.  The Tintype Photographer (the Quaint)
At first we see Buster Keaton (playing “Buster”) working on the street soliciting passers-by to have their pictures taken with his tintype camera.  Tintype photography was an early image print process that could produce pictures in a couple of minutes, so Buster could hand over his taken pictures immediately to his customers.  His work, however, is interrupted by a tickertape parade that attracts a big crowd.  Among the onlookers is a naturally beautiful young woman, Sally (played by Marceline Day), on whom Buster develops an instant crush.  Buster also sees that the tickertape parade is being filmed by a newsreel photographer, and he wonders if that’s something he could do.

So Buster goes to the offices of MGM Newsreels looking for a job, and he is surprised to see that working there as a receptionist is Sally, towards whom the awkward and virtually speechless Buster can only make worshipful glances.  Buster’s primitive tintype camera is rudely dismissed by the MGM boss and a staff cameraman Harry (Harold Goodwin), who also has his eyes on Sally, and Buster is shown the door.  Before leaving, though, Sally sympathetically tells him that he needs to have his own motion-picture camera and take some interesting footage with it in order to get such a job.  So Buster uses all of his money to buy an old hand-cranked film camera at a pawnshop, and then he goes off looking for interesting things to film.

2.  The Slapstick Scenes
Now the film passes into a somewhat disconnected sequence of slapstick scenes.  Out on the city streets looking for interesting things to shoot, Buster has a slapstick encounter with a cop (Harry Gribbon) walking his beat.  These semi-hostile encounters will reappear throughout the rest of the film.  Then, not knowing that the New York Yankees baseball team is on the road, he visits an empty Yankee Stadium looking for something to shoot.  There follows a slapstick pantomime sequence of Buster imitating baseball players in action.  Although this scene has nothing to do with the rest of the story, it is amusing to see how closely Keaton’s 90-year-old pantomiming matches the gestures of today’s baseball players.

When Buster returns to MGM Newsreels to show the footage of supposedly interesting urban activity he has collected, he is crushed to see that his incompetence with his hand-cranked camera led to everything being double-exposed, and he is scornfully laughed out of the studio screening room.  Before he departs, though, he manages to secure a date to take Sally for a walk the next Sunday, the preparation for which involves further slapstick, including a continuous multi-floor tracking shot showing Buster running up and down stairs.

On the date, after a harrowing bus ride, they wind up going to the municipal indoor swimming pool, where more shenanigans take place.  Perhaps the most famous of these shows Buster and a fat man cramped inside a phone-booth-sized changing stall, where he and the man struggle to change into their swimming suits.  All of this must have been carefully planned, because this is presented in extended takes, the longest of which lasts 2:40.  There are also frantic sequences showing Buster and Sally in the water after Buster had embarrassedly lost his swimsuit.

When they are ready to go home, Harry shows up uninvited and offers Sally a ride home in his fancy car.  Harry dismissively tells Buster to go sit back in the rumble seat, and Buster winds up getting soaked to his skin when a thunderstorm arises during their ride home.

3.  The Tong War Maelstrom
Later the still-sympathetic Sally gets word that in Chinatown there is an imminent Tong (Chinese gangsters) war, and she quietly passes the information about this certain-to-be-newsworthy event on to Buster.  Buster immediately rushes off towards Chinatown, but in his haste he knocks over a sidewalk organ grinder, the crushing fall apparently killing the organ grinder’s his little dancing monkey.  However, after the organ grinder departs with some compensatory coins from Buster, the monkey revives and permanently attaches itself to Buster. 

Buster now arrives in Chinatown, and he, with the clever assistance from his new monkey pal, starts filming the incredibly violent and chaotic Tong war that has erupted.  He is now in the middle of a maelstrom.  This tumultuous battle goes on for seven minutes of screen time, and Buster is lucky to survive.  Afterwards, he triumphantly returns to MGM to show his precious footage, but he is shocked when he opens his camera to find no film in it.  Seemingly having ruined his last change with Sally, he apologizes to her and goes home.

4.  Finally, Some Valuable Footage

The next day Buster, still with his monkey, goes to film a yacht club regatta.  When he sets up his camera, Buster discovers that his monkey had the previous day mischievously removed Buster’s earlier-shot film reel from his camera, suggesting that his Tong-war footage is still available. 

But at this point we see that Harry has taken Sally out in the same waters in his speedboat, and they speed into Buster’s camera’s field of view.  When Harry attempts a daredevil turn in the speedboat, he and Sally are both thrown into the water.  Saving his own skin, Harry safely swims ashore, leaving Sally alone struggling way out in the water.

When Buster sees what has happened, he strips off his coat and plunges into the water to save Sally.  Incredibly, after Buster has abandoned his camera, the monkey comes over and starts cranking the camera to film everything.  Buster manages to rescue the now-unconscious Sally, and once he brings her ashore, he immediately rushes off to a nearby drugstore to get something that will help revive her.  While Buster is momentarily away, Harry shows up just as Sally regains consciousness.  Harry quickly claims wrongful credit for having saved Sally and ushers her away just before Buster can return to her.  Buster has once more lost to Harry.

Buster feels that he has been defeated once and for all.  But we know that his camera has recorded, thanks partly to his ingenious monkey pal, the truth of his heroic deeds, including the Tong war, on film.  You can watch the ending of The Cameraman for yourself to see how these truths are finally revealed to all.

Overall, The Cameraman has two satisfying narrative threads: one of them tracing Buster’s hectic efforts to film newsworthy events so that he can secure a job at the newsreel company and the other thread covering the tentative and gradual relationship between Buster and Sally.  This relationship thread is greatly enhanced by Marceline Day’s sensitive and subtly emotive performance in the role of Sally.  This is all interlaced with an admittedly hodgepodge collection of slapstick scenes, which must have required careful planning and execution to get right.

On the thematic plane, we might inquire whether the cameraman’s occupation in the film stimulates considerations of larger social issues, such as privacy, authenticity, and censorship.  However, although those issues are lurking in the background, they do not come up in any significant way here in this film.  Nevertheless, The Cameraman is an entertaining film that I recommend.

  1. “The Cameraman”, Wikipedia, (21 December 2018).   

1 comment:

Joseph said...

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