The Cameraman (1928)
I’ll get to The Cameraman in a sec, just bear with me. Did you watch Lost? I hope, for your sake, that the answer is no. I mean, c’mon – J.J. Abrams, I’m going to kick your ass in a dark alley if I ever get the chance, just for wasting my time. But I digress. I merely mention this to point out the character of Desmond Hume, who wags around the one Dickens novel, Our Mutual Friend, that he’s saving. ‘Cause see, I do that too. As a matter of fact, I’m sitting on Martin Chuzzlewit by Dickens, Pic by Jack Kerouac, and one lone piece from Joseph Mitchell’s Up in the Old Hotel. Please don’t tell me how tragic and regrettable this will be if I get hit by a bus… I know, I know.
All of this is to say that recently, I went to a screening of The Cameraman (1928) starring the one and only Buster Keaton. And this was the one and only Buster Keaton film I’ve never seen. So before you gasp and clutch your chest and say, “But Pretty Clever Film Gal, how could you neglect to see a Buster Keaton movie!?!” I refer you to my opening salvo above. Buster Keaton movies are rare and precious commodities. It’s not like we’re getting any new ones, unless somebody decides to use his powers for good not evil (I’m looking at you, James Cameron.) However, when you have the opportunity to see a Buster Keaton movie in a theatre with music accompaniment from William O’Meara, well preciousness has to be put aside.
Eric Veillette, impresario of Silent Sundays at the Revue Cinema and Silent Toronto perpetrator, introduced The Cameraman as Keaton’s last great film, which is a fair assessment. Careful readers may have noticed that I did not refer to the movie as “Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman,” but merely stated that it starred Keaton. Though Keaton was an auteur before there was such a thing, writing, directing, editing, I suspect even catering all of his features up ’til this point, The Cameraman was directed by Edward Sedgwick. Notably, this movie was Keaton’s first under his brand spankin’ new contract with MGM. Things would go from bad to worse for Keaton and MGM, and in a little less than a year, creative control of his films would be wrested out of his hands. Keaton later called the move to MGM “The worst mistake of my career.” Considering what followed, he’s exactly right.
But that’s later. In 1928, The Cameraman has Keaton’s fingerprints all over it. Sedgwick may have held the title of director, but no body puts Buster in the corner apparently, or at least not yet. As a filmmaker, Keaton is all about control – having it, losing it, regaining it. His films are precise, always demonstrating that’s there’s nothing coincidental about a good gag. Comedy is a presentation, dependent on timing and control and Keaton’s work reflects this, always. So despite being stripped of the titular role of director, it’s impossible to assert with a straight face that The Cameraman, perhaps one of his most self-reflexive works, was not firmly in Keaton’s control.
The movie abounds with gags the define Keaton’s preoccupation with control, or lack thereof. When he pawns his tintype machine to buy an outdated, hand cranked movie camera, all in the service of getting closer to Sally, the newsreel production office receptionist, things spin out of Buster’s control pretty damn fast. His initial salvo in newsreel shooting results in a tragic mess of double exposed images – a battleship sailing down a Manhattan street, most notably. Forget the mechanics even – Buster struggles with the physicality of the machine itself, breaking the glass in the office door multiple times. In the end, the star cameraman of The Cameraman is a monkey, for pete’s sake. Which might be a metaphor for Keaton’s entire career: an aimless amateurism produces iffy experimental results, and an unrestrained primitivism produces a heroic quality results (not to mention funny results). Take that, MGM studio stooges!
[sws_yellow_box box_size="600"] For more photos from The Cameraman, check out the PCF Facebook Album. [/sws_yellow_box]
I think there’s another point worth making about Buster Keaton and The Cameraman. Turns out, Buster is a fine actor. His previous, auteur-like body of work demonstrates beyond a doubt that Buster is fantastic performer, honed from basically being born on a vaudeville stage. He always had the timing, the exploitation and confounding of expectation to provoke a reaction, but did Buster ever act, did he build a character and flesh out a role? Perhaps freed from the rigors of being the writer-director-caterer, Buster is free to be our hapless little cameraman, so complete that when Sally rejects him, it will bring a tear to your eye. That’s not the typical response to your typical slapstick and reflects the elevation of Buster’s small-man-in-a-big-world character beyond mere comedy prop.
With hindsight being 20/20, it’s difficult to not find a tinge of the bittersweet in The Cameraman, solely because it is Buster Keaton’s last great film. It is, sadly, mostly downhill for Buster from there. But, for all that, The Cameraman is not to be missed. You can score The Cameraman on dvd as part of The Buster Keaton Collection, available from TCM.
- Mordant Hall’s New York Times Review, September 17, 1928
- Extract of 1928 Variety Review
- The Cameraman on IMDB
Watch Buster lose his shorts at the public pool in The Cameraman