#392) The Cameraman (1928)
OR “Blocked Buster”
Directed by Edward Sedgwick (with uncredited assistance from Buster Keaton)
Written by Clyde Bruckman and Lew Lipton
Class of 2005
The Plot: Photographer Buster (Buster Keaton) falls for Sally (Marceline Day), who works as a secretary for MGM Newsreels. Buster buys a used film camera and applies for a job, while simultaneously trying to ask out Sally, both leading to hilarious results. All the while, Buster must also contend with Sally’s rival beau Harold (Harold Goodwin) and a police officer (Harry Gribbon) who thinks Buster is nuts. Also there’s a monkey.
Why It Matters: Wow, someone at the NFR really likes this movie. Their write-up calls “The Cameraman” “seamless [and] ingenious”, and that the film features “some of the best treatises on the techniques and psychology of shooting motion pictures.” That’s a fancy way of saying it has lots of ha-has in it.
But Does It Really?: Oh man, this is a tough one. Historically, the film represents Keaton’s last creative hurrah in a decade long hot streak: “The Cameraman” was his final silent film, as well as his first movie under contract at MGM. The film has plenty of quality Keaton gags that hold up quite well, but overall it’s more a series of well-constructed bits than a cohesive movie. Still, second-tier Keaton is better (and funnier) than first-tier almost anybody else. I can give “The Cameraman” a very slight pass, but if you’re short on time, stick with Keaton’s undisputed classics like “Sherlock Jr.” and “The General”.
Wow, That’s Dated: Besides Keaton’s cumbersome camera, the film also highlights movie newsreels, tintypes, ticker tape parades, rumble seats, and organ grinders. Plus shoutouts to aviator Charles Lindbergh and English Channel swimmer Gertrude Ederle.
Seriously, Oscars?: MGM had the Best Picture winner of 1929 with “The Broadway Melody”, but “Cameraman” received zero nominations at the 2nd Oscars. None of Keaton’s subsequent films received any Oscar love, either. A new generation rediscovered Keaton’s filmography in the 1950s, and in 1960 Keaton received an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement.
- Why would a filmmaker of Keaton’s stature give up his creative independence by signing up with MGM? Not by choice. Turns out “The General” was a critical and commercial failure upon its release, and United Artists forced Keaton to work with a production manager who interfered with his creative process. Once Keaton’s contract with United Artists ended, he jumped ship to MGM, with a promise from executive and friend Joseph Schenck that he would still maintain creative control. As this episode of “You Must Remember This” details, that was ultimately not the case.
- Keaton found his new home stifling from the beginning. A typical Keaton screenplay had three or four writers, MGM assigned 22 script doctors to “The Cameraman”. In addition, Keaton had a hard time being “just an actor” and letting Edward Sedgwick direct the film. Sedgwick would eventually call on Keaton’s expertise throughout production, and the two got along after that.
- The aforementioned shoutouts to Lindbergh and Ederle come with their inclusion in the film via archival footage, mixed in with shots implying Buster witnessed these events. “The Cameraman” presaged “Forrest Gump”!
- The meet-cute between Buster and Sally involves Buster brushing up against her in a crowd. Gross gross gross.
- Keaton gets a lot of comedy mileage out of that clunky camera. He does every gag you can by swinging that thing around and hitting everything in sight, and it works!
- The baseball scene has nothing to do with anything, but it’s fun watching one of the comedy greats pantomiming an entire game by himself.
- The relationship between Buster and Sally is a variation on a theme called “He’s very awkward and she’s okay with it”.
- The most impressive shot in the whole movie is Buster running up and down the stairway of an entire building, from the roof to the cellar. The shot was filmed on a massive set using an elevator crane. What I wouldn’t give to see that behind-the-scenes footage.
- Keaton’s trademark stoneface conveys so much with so little. Keaton uses the same facial expression to convey sadness, confusion, indifference, frustration, etc. I guess you just read into it whatever you want.
- The swimming pool scene is another highlight, from the inspired (and possibly improvised) changing room sequence, to some brief rear nudity from Keaton (this was pre-code after all). Speaking of, I was not expecting Keaton to be so ripped. Someone didn’t skip ab day.
- And then we go to Chinatown and this film takes a turn. For starters, Buster seemingly kills the organ grinder’s monkey! Services will be held at Norma Desmond’s house.
- Don’t worry, the monkey is fine, and becomes Buster’s sidekick for the film’s third act. It’s…a choice.
- If you’re trying to crack down on gang activity in Chinatown, might I suggest a young Jake Gittes? It’d be a good, traumatizing lesson for him.
- “The Cameraman” loses some steam towards the end, though there are still a few remarkable stunts from Keaton, and the ending has what appears to be the ‘20s version of the “Weird Al’s on the plane” joke from “Naked Gun”.
- Keaton would later call his decision to sign with MGM the worst in his life. The studio saw Keaton not as a creative independent filmmaker, but rather as a commodity that had to be protected. He clashed often with studio heads, and was fired from MGM in 1933. This, mixed with his divorce from his first wife in 1932, led to Keaton’s slump into alcoholism.
- By the 1940s, a happily remarried and sober Buster Keaton returned to MGM as a freelance gag writer. He gave comedy advice to a young Lucille Ball, and contributed jokes and bits of business to several Red Skelton movies. Among them, 1950’s “Watch the Birdie”, which is considered by many an unofficial remake of “The Cameraman”.
- As mentioned above, Keaton’s work was rediscovered thanks to television, and he spent the last 15 years of his life as a bona-fide, oft-employed comedy icon.