The Cameraman (1928) Director: Edward Sedgwick and Buster Keaton (uncredited)
“They’ll buy any good film… so photograph anything that’s interesting!”
We open with a series of professional cameramen capturing war and other important events, and we then cut to Buster Keaton working on the streets as a linotype photographer, offering portraits for 10 cents a shot. Suddenly a huge crowd emerges! Papers fall from above, interrupting his client’s photo, and when they leave Buster Keaton is left standing alone with a young woman named Sally (Marceline Day). While he is busy setting up his camera for her portrait, she runs off with another cameraman leaving Buster Keaton to track her down at her office, which just so happens to be the offices of MGM! Buster poses as an MGM cameraman, though naturally his faux career is a swing-and-a-miss as he stumbles between capturing a warehouse on fire, and a Yankees game (though the Yankees are actually playing an away game in St. Louis!), before he fails to impress the MGM executives with his brilliant little experimental mash-up film –a pre-parody of Dziga Vertov’s Man With A Movie Camera (1929). Buster Keaton is sure to leave lots of knocks and jabs at MGM in this film –his first MGM picture!
He spends the rest of the film chasing after Sally, from a crowded bus to a busy public pool (where he loses his swimsuit in a gag which will be repeated again in many future movies, including by Mr. Bean). He is given a secret tip-off to photograph a “Tong War” in Chinatown, but by the time he returns to MGM, he discovers there is no film in his camera. Sadly, he departs MGM while Sally won’t speak to him. He shoots footage of a yacht race wherein he earns that his pet monkey has actually swapped out the footage from the “Tong War” –meanwhile he secretly rescues Sally from a boat crash while his monkey records it all. In the end, he sends the footage of the “Tong War” and the boat rescue to MGM where he is redeemed. Sally tracks Buster down working on the street, and they walk away together while another massive parade occurs as in the beginning of the movie. Buster assumes the parade is for himself, though in truth it is really for Charles Lindbergh.
The Cameraman is another charming Buster Keaton film, the first in his two-year deal with MGM, a deal he would later regret, calling it “the worst mistake of my life” in his autobiography. There was lots of infighting behind the scenes of The Cameraman, particularly with MGM director Edward Sedgwick, as Keaton was accustomed to total control over his films, though Keaton did manage to elicit laughter from notoriously emotionless golden boy of MGM, Irving Thalberg. The Cameraman is an amusing romp with Buster Keaton, in all of his films he seems like an anachronism from a small American town observing the rising speed of modern society, the whizz and whirr of machinery, the cruelty of crowds, yet in The Cameraman the truth is eventually revealed by the power of cinema. The Cameraman is often considered the last of Buster Keaton’s great films which first began in the 1910s, however his blend of silent physical comedy was not to survive long into the advent of talkies. Sadly, Keaton fell into alcoholism and a nasty divorce before a late career resurgence which granted a reappraisal of his early films, and also allowed him to appear in shows like The Twilight Zone and movies like Sunset Boulevard (1950), Limelight (1952) alongside Charlie Chaplin and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963).