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After becoming infatuated with a pretty office worker for MGM Newsreels, Buster trades in his tintype operation for a movie camera and sets out to impress the girl (and MGM) with his work. Written by
Keaton's last masterpiece, and a glimpse of what might have been
THE CAMERAMAN is, in a way, Buster Keaton's most heartbreaking movie. It shows what could have been, if only MGM had left him alone. Keaton had made all of his great films at an independent studio where he had total control over his work. With the help of a hand-picked creative team, he wrote, directed, designed and starred in his movies, not to mention doing all his own stunts. Buster always left himself room to improvise and revise during filming, sometimes incorporating accidents into the development of new gags. He gave little thought to financial matters; he believed in doing things right, whatever the cost in money, time or physical hardship.
In 1928, Keaton's producer Joseph Schenck dissolved his studio and turned him over to MGM, the biggest, richest, and most authoritarian of the major studios. Keaton went reluctantly, feeling he had no choice. At first, the situation didn't look too bad. For his first MGM film, THE CAMERAMAN, he kept most of his creative team, and provided the idea for the story. It had the element he considered most important: simplicity. He would play a street photographer who, smitten with a receptionist at a newsreel company, strives to become a newsreel cameraman. MGM took this idea and sent it to their writers, who complicated it with subplots, extraneous characters and needless plot twists. The studio also dispatched Keaton to film on location in New York. Frustrated by the crowds that interfered with filming, by a script he disliked, and by conflicts with his director, Keaton pleaded with Irving Thalberg to let him edit the script and shoot the rest of the film in Los Angeles. To his everlasting credit, Thalberg agreed, and director Ed Sedgwick also came around the Buster's way of working. As a result, THE CAMERAMAN became a Keaton masterpiece, one of his most mature, satisfying, and hilarious films.
Not surprisingly, some of the funniest and most inspired moments were not in the script but were improvised by Buster during filming: when he pantomimes a baseball game in Yankee Stadium, when he calmly demolishes his room in an effort to open his piggy bank, and when he attempts to change into a swimsuit in a small cubicle shared with an irascible fat man. But the level of inspiration is consistently high throughout the film. There's a beautiful sequence in which Buster runs up and down a staircase (filmed smoothly from an elevator), anticipating a phone call from his beloved Sally. When he finally gets the call, he drops the receiver and races through the city streets (in fact, Manhattan's 5th Avenue) to arrive at her house before she has hung up. There's a nightmarishly funny scene in which he loses his over-sized swimsuit in a public pool, and swims around with only his alarmed and desperate eyes above water. For the last third of the movie, there's the marvelous Josephine, an organ grinder's monkey who becomes Buster's troublesome sidekick. Not only is she one of the best animal performers you'll ever see, she's a better actor than some humans who appeared in silent movies. It's a delight to watch her riding around on Buster's shoulder, scampering up and down his body, and embracing his great stone face with her tiny hands.
THE CAMERAMAN reflects Buster's fascination with film-making and the mechanics of the camera. His character's clumsy initial efforts are a textbook of film-making mistakes. There is an appropriately spectacular finale in which Buster films a Tong war in Chinatown, imperturbable amid the swirling riot of violence. There's the most poignant moment in any Keaton film, when Buster, having rescued Sally from a boat wreck and rushed off to get aid, returns to the beach to find his rival has taken credit for the rescue and won her gratitude. His posture of utter defeat is almost unbearable, and his ultimate vindication is truly gratifying. The romance in THE CAMERAMAN is more fully developed than in most of Keaton's films; Sally is played by the exceptionally pretty Marceline Day, and unlike Buster's often prickly love interests she is unfailingly sweet and supportive. They meet when a passing parade pushes them together in a crowd, and Buster, finding his face in Marceline's hair, shuts his eyes in swooning bliss. Already we can see Buster's character shading towards the more sentimental, "sad clown" type that MGM later forced on him. But in THE CAMERAMAN he's still stoic and ingenious, and his performance is incredibly subtle and expressive, every motion fine-tuned to perfection.
I appreciated this performance all the more when I recently watched Turner Classic Movie's new DVD release. The picture quality was so much better than the old battered video print that I felt I'd never seen the film before. Alas, the print is no more complete than earlier versions. Portions have been lost to wear and tear because MGMdelighted with the film's successplayed their print over and over, using it as a training film for new comedians. The savage irony is that the lesson the studio drew from this was not that Keaton did, in fact, work best when given freedom, but that Keaton was better than ever under their control. They would never again allow him such independence, and his films would rapidly deteriorate in quality. But don't think about this while you're watching THE CAMERAMAN, just enjoy one of the most elegant and perfect romantic comedies ever made.
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