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Buster Keaton's 'The Cameraman' Casts Light on MGM's Tyranny

Buster Keaton in The Cameraman (1928) (IMDB)

The Cameraman is Keaton's last great film, a jubilant, chaotic, and overactive silent romantic comedy that, intentional or not, doubles as a vision of the precarity of celebrity, independence, and artistry in the brutal Hollywood system.

The Cameraman
Buster Keaton, Edward Sedgwick


June 16, 2020


From enormous success to spectacular failure—it's the quintessential trajectory of Hollywood celebrity. Silent comedian Buster Keaton, among the first generation of Hollywood stars, came to know it well. Keaton crafted hit comedies like Our Hospitality (1923), The Navigator (1924), and Seven Chances (1925) for years—and those that weren't box office successes would later be regarded as some of the finest movies of the silent era, especially Sherlock, Jr. (1924), The General (1927), and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928). But by the '50s, Keaton was appearing mostly in cameo roles in films like Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Charlie Chaplin's Limelight (1952) playing a type of character he by then knew intimately: a washed-up entertainer forgotten to time.

The Cameraman (1928) was Keaton's first film under contract with Metro Goldwyn-Mayer after five prolific years with his own independent production company, and it was the last true Buster Keaton picture. After production trouble and disagreements, MGM wrestled all creative control from the comedian, who stayed on contract until 1933 making modestly profitable films that he nonetheless found artistically unfulfilling. Ultimately, marriage and financial trouble, alcoholism, and the loss of creative independence pushed Keaton out of the spotlight for good, and though he still appeared in movies until his death in 1966, it was never again as a star.

For fans, The Cameraman—out now on DVD and Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection—is a magnificent finalé of the most successful years of Keaton's career. In the film, Keaton plays a clumsy photographer who aspires to be a freelance newsreel cameraman in order to woo Sally (Marceline Day), the secretary at the MGM News offices. In his quest to capture exciting stories, he finds (and creates) news all across the city, most notably in the film's most action-packed sequence: a gang war in Chinatown.

At least half of the silent film's gags are derived from Buster and Sally's love story: they go to a pool and he loses his swimsuit, they take a crowded bus and he hangs out the window to be near her, he waits for her to call him and when she does, he arrives at her house before she even hangs up. Some of the scenes are among the most iconic of the comedian's career, like when he shares a cramped changing room at the pool with another man and they tussle with each other as they hurry to change to be with their dates.

Film Strip by joseph_alban(Pixabay License / Pixabay)

There's no denying that The Cameraman is a classic Keaton film, but it isn't his strongest. It's certainly more jumbled and erratic than its fans tend to admit. The two storylines—Buster the cameraman and Buster the love interest—only come together at the very end when, shooting a boat race, Buster saves Sally from a rogue speedboat. Other sequences have little or nothing to do with either plot, such as when Buster arrives at the empty Yankee Stadium and pantomimes a baseball game by himself.

In some ways, the movie is also a bit of a departure from Keaton's stock style. Though Keaton films frequently hold an element of romance, stories that rely more heavily on flirtation and courtship are generally a better fit for Charlie Chaplin's sentimentalism or Harold Lloyd's go-getter enthusiasm than Keaton's signature deadpan emotionlessness, The Cameraman emphasizes the love story so heavily that the studio considered it more of a "woman's film" than previous Keaton projects. It lacks the kind of big, daring stunt setpieces that were once his trademark, especially in The General and Steamboat Bill, Jr.

Eventually, MGM would altogether refuse to let Keaton do his own stunts, much to his displeasure. So while The Cameraman shows Keaton at the height of his popularity and potential, it also shows him out of his element as an artist, and it offers a glimpse at how MGM would transform and, ultimately, nearly destroy him.

Strangely, the film kind of portends that doom. Though The Cameraman was initially set to a script supposedly drafted by 22 MGM screenwriters, Keaton was allowed to throw it away and improvise the same way he had on his independent films. Almost prophetically, the story of the movie as Keaton crafted it shrewdly mirrored what would be his defining struggle for independence against the industrial tyranny of MGM.

In the film, Buster's rival is a bigshot established photojournalist named Harold (Harold Goodwin), who—already well-studied in company practices and expectations, industry politics, and camera operating technique—bullies Buster for not fitting in and arrogantly slides in on Sally's affections. It's quite telling that, in a film explicitly formulated to publicize MGM's newsreel division, everyone employed within the MGM machine (with the notable exception of Sally) is a cocky, imperious blowhard who ridicules and torments the poor independent filmmaker trying to make his own way. That's doubtlessly not the story that the original script crafted by MGM's screenwriters told.

Buster Keaton and Harry Gribbon (IMDB)

In the finished project—Keaton's last with that level of authorship—we get a peek at the artist's anxieties and insecurities as he relinquished his freedom to a corporate studio. The Cameraman is Keaton's last great film, a jubilant, chaotic, and overactive silent romantic comedy that, intentional or not, doubles as a vision of the precarity of celebrity, independence, and artistry in the brutal Hollywood system.

* * *

It's astounding to note that, after years of reliably first-rate releases of the works of Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, this new edition of The Cameraman marks The Criterion Collection's first release of a Buster Keaton film. In celebration of Keaton and the film itself, the Blu-ray release is stacked with brilliant special features, chief among them Keaton's second full-length feature made under contract with MGM and his last silent film, Spite Marriage (1929).

Buster Keaton and Dorothy Sebastian in Spite Marriage (1929) (IMDB)

Spite Marriage is about a bumbling dry cleaner (Keaton) who is roped into marriage with a stage actress (Dorothy Sebastian)—the woman of his dreams—to spite her former lover (Edward Earle). It's a solid slapstick farce, with a handful of Keaton-worthy stunts and gags, but it mostly squanders his talents as an expert physical comedian in favor of predictable pratfalls and formulaic romance. Still, the film's inclusion as an extra feature (along with a bonus audio commentary featuring film historians John Bengtson and Jeffrey Vance) is a surprising and welcome one, providing fans with a beautiful 2K restoration of an important Keaton rarity plus greater context for the filmmaker's move to MGM.

Also included are three documentaries focused on separate subjects: a new documentary called Time Travelers about how silent filmmakers and Keaton in particular captured a unique era of Los Angeles, Kevin Brownlow and Christopher Bird's 2004 documentary So Funny It Hurt: Buster Keaton & MGM, and a historical piece from 1979 called The Motion Picture Camera. The booklet includes an essay by Imogen Sara Smith and a particularly illuminating excerpt from Charles Samuels and Keaton's book My Wonderful World of Slapstick about the troubled production of The Cameraman. A 2004 commentary featuring author and silent film historian Glenn Mitchell, which largely reiterates Keaton's experiences during the production of the film, is also included.

Buster Keaton and Dorothy Sebastian in Spite Marriage (1929) (IMDB)


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