The Cameraman

Tuesday, June 9th, 2020


The Cameraman
Studio: The Criterion Collection

Jun 09, 2020
Web Exclusive

By Austin Trunick

In The Cameraman (1928), Buster Keaton stars as Buster, a meager street photographer who will shoot your sidewalk portrait for ten cents a pop. He falls hard for one of his subjects, Sally (Marceline Day), who answers the phone at MGM’s New York newsreel office. To get closer to her, Buster buys a rickety movie camera that he has no idea how to use, and sets to work as an aspiring, freelance news cameraman.

Of course, this being a Buster Keaton movie, hijinks ensue. Buster’s incompetence leads to embarrassing results in the company’s screening room, and he proves equally clueless in love, fudging every step of his date with Sally and being shown up time and again by his romantic rival, a fellow newsman (Harold Goodwin). Eventually, as expected, Buster’s fortune turns, and he finds himself with his camera rolling in the midst of a violent Chinatown gang war and then, the very next day, saving his beloved from drowning at sea.

Although this movie came just ahead of Keaton’s decline, it was also hot off the tail of heralded classics The General (1927) and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), and a fine sample of Keaton at the peak of his game. Some will argue that it was his last, truly great feature: it was his first big studio film for MGM, and his second-to-last fully silent feature. At the tail of the ‘20s, Keaton had full creative control over several of the greatest silent comedies ever filmed under the umbrella of his own independent production house, Buster Keaton Studios. As his grandiose gags grew more expensive and talkies loomed over the horizon—unlike many silent stars, the forward-thinking Keaton was eager to work in sound—Keaton made the difficult choice to leave his studio and sign with the deep-pocketed producers at MGM, a choice he’d later describe as one of the biggest mistakes of his career. Thinking he’d retain creative control of his pictures but this time have greater budgets to work with, Keaton was instead forced to work on projects that weren’t his, and certainly didn’t suit his improvisational talents. His distaste with the work he was given and personal issues at home and with alcohol led to a rapid decline, with Keaton’s work sinking to a place in quality that it would take years for him to climb out of.

Before all of that, though, Keaton came out with The Cameraman, on which he was mostly left alone to make in his personal style, and was probably the only time he was afforded the creative leniency paired with the financing that he’d likely dreamed of when he signed his devil’s deal with MGM. The movie is a hoot, with several classic scenes—Keaton sharing a tiny changing room with a burly swimmer, the madcap Tong War—that will force steady laughter from even the most stoic viewers. The stunts aren’t quite as jaw-droppingly dangerous-looking as they were when Keaton worked independently—you can’t blame a studio for not allowing their high-salaried star to put his life on the line for a pratfall—but there are a few, like Buster hanging off the side of a speeding firetruck, that are still pretty exciting. And jusst like in fellow silent star Harold Lloyd’s most recent Criterion Collection entry, The Kid Brother, Josephine the Monkey shows up near the film’s end to steal scene after scene she’s in. (Sorry, Mr. Eastwood, but Clyde the Orangutan has nothing on Josephine.) Any movie with this many monkey hijinks is great to watch with kids.

With the methods in which The Cameraman was shot in real locations, it’s also a great historical document of those places. Some of it was shot in New York City, as you can see in the included 2004 documentary So Funny it Hurts, hosted by late, great character actor—and personal friend of Keaton’s— James Karen, of Return of the Living Dead and Invaders from Mars fame. (There’s some super-early fan footage of Keaton filming on the street, with a throng of New Yorkers gathered just behind the camera.) Watch the background of this 4K restoration to admire lots of wonderful details from the time period, whether it’s a painted billboard for Norma Shearer’s The Actress (1928), or a completely empty Yankees Stadium covered with advertisements for shaving cream. Other scenes were shot in and about Los Angeles, close to MGM’s studio lot, and those locations are explored in a nice 2020 documentary Time Travelers, included here.

Criterion’s Blu-ray edition packs a ton of bonus materials around the 69-minute film, including both of the aforementioned documentaries as well as a 2K restoration of Spite Marriage (1929) in its entirety. (Spite Marriage was the next movie Keaton made for MGM, and his last true silent picture; it’s not nearly as good as The Cameraman, but it’s certainly a welcome addition for Keaton fans who pick up this disc.) There’s also an audio commentary, as well as an interview with Keaton historian James L. Neibaur that covers the comedians’ late career, and a vintage featurette about old movie cameras. This is an excellent release of a very funny silent film, with plenty of extra features for fans to settle in with over numerous hours.


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