The Cameraman (1928) Review

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).

Seven Chances (1925) Review

Seven Chances (1925) Director: Joseph Frank “Buster” Keaton

★★★★☆

Based on the musical of the same name, this silly film tells the story of Jimmie Shannon, a stock broker, who is on the verge of bankruptcy. However, a lawyer chases him and his business partner around town, hoping to inform them that Jimmie’s grandfather has left him an inheritance of $7 million (they avoid the pursuing lawyer thinking he might be issuing a summons to account for the mounting debts). However, they do catch one another and the only provision for Jimmie to receive the inheritance is that he must be married by 7 o’clock on his 27th birthday. In a panic, he realizes it is actually the day of his 27th birthday and so he rushes to propose to his long-time girlfriend, Mary, but she declines because she is worried Jimmie only cares about the money. Back at the office, she tries to call him but his phone is off the hook and she overhears his despair in a touching scene as he professes his love for Mary. Instantly, she sends a note over to him, but the note is delayed as Jimmie is chased all over town by a large group of women suddenly wanting to marry him for his money until he arrives at the doorstep of Mary and they are wed moments before the 7 o’clock deadline.

Buster Keaton actually hated this play when it was on broadway, but he owed money to Joseph Schenck who had bought the rights to the play so Keaton reluctantly agreed to make the film, though he never really liked it. Seven Chances was later remade several times by The Three Stooges, and as recently as The Bachelor in 1999. While it falls short of some of his other movies, such as The General (1926) or Sherlock, Jr. (1924), Seven Chances is a splendid and charming little film worth seeing for fans of Buster Keaton’s repertoire.

Go West (1925) Review

9/11/2016

Go West (1925) Director: Buster Keaton

★★★★☆

A sentimental comedy of the Old West, Buster Keaton’s Go West is a delight. Here we find the great stone face’s clear precursor to his magnum opus The General (1926) as we drop into the world of ranches, cowboys, cattle, and, most importantly, trains (Keaton had a life-long fascination with trains). Much of the film was shot in Arizona in extremely hot weather –when it reached over 120 degrees the production crew was forced to store the camera in a bucket of ice. In later years, Buster Keaton never looked back fondly on Go West, though it was a box office success upon release.

Go West tells the story of an unsuspecting hero, Friendless (Buster Keaton), who ventures westward to become a cowboy. He sells his possessions in the city and is unable to find a job thus he heads out west and befriends a cow named “Brown Eyes” who protects him from a bull attack. In the end, he saves Brown Eyes from certain death after leading a herd of cattle through the city of Los Angeles. Friendless saves his rancher employer and demands to have “her” (to which the rancher assumed Keaton is referring to his daughter, but in fact, Keaton points over to the cow, Brown Eyes). It is the closest film in Buster Keaton’s repertoire to match the sentimentality of a Charlie Chaplin picture (some have speculated that the more sentimental tone was due to the deaths of several of Keaton’s gag men shortly before the film’s release). It can also be interpreted as a parody of D.W. Griffith films, indeed at one point Buster Keaton mimics Lillian Gish’s sorrowful finger smile as featured in Broken Blossoms (1919).

I thought Go West was a fun cowboy satire, albeit a more sentimental flick than others in the Buster Keaton collection. Interestingly enough Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, the leading comedy man who initially helped Buster Keaton get into film-making, makes a small uncredited cross-dressing cameo in this film. He had fallen on hard times when in 1921 a young woman had accused Arbuckle of rape. The ensuing trial caused a public scandal which destroyed his career and marriage, and led to years of alcoholism. He has since been exonerated, but the damage had already been done. Thankfully, he still had friends like Buster Keaton.

The Navigator (1924) Review

9/5/2016

The Navigator (1924) Director: Buster Keaton and Donald Crisp

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★★★★☆

Whereas Charlie Chaplin’s “Tramp” was an impoverished, downtrodden yet dreamy sort of fellow, Buster Keaton often portrayed the opposite kind of clown –a despoiled and soft milquetoast who is perpetually the disappointment of his father. In The Navigator Buster Keaton offers another delightful parody of adventure films that is prescient in a number of ways, not least of which because it foreshadows the work of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) with an examination of man in his unnatural habitat surrounded by confusing and anxiety-ridden machinery.

The Navigator contains some of Keaton’s best stunts, it is based on a screenplay by Clyde Bruckman, a writer of other great comedies, whose other works include the likes of W.C. Fields, Laurel and Hardy, The Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, and Harold Lloyd. Bruckman (pronounced “Brook-man”) was also a co-writer for other famous Buster Keaton films, such as Our Hospitality, Sherlock, Jr., Seven Chances, The Cameraman, and The General. Later, in 1955, Bruckman borrowed a gun from Buster Keaton claiming he needed it for a hunting trip, and instead, he drove himself to a restaurant in Santa Monica and shot himself in the bathroom. Some have speculated this was because of his declining career with the rise of talkies as well as his alcoholism which prevented him from gaining more senior roles. When I learned this fact, it simply added to the mounting tragedies Buster Keaton faced in later life, however The Navigator was completed in his golden age, at the pinnacle of Old Stone Face’s success.

At any rate, the film tells the story of Rollo Treadway (Buster Keaton), disappointing son of means and privilege. One day, he spots an African American couple recently married and he decides to propose to a girl, as well. He orders his butler to prematurely purchase tickets for his honeymoon and he drives across the street to his neighbors’ house where he proposes to Betsey O’Brien (Kathryn McGuire). However, predictably, she rejects him and he decides to go on the honeymoon trip by himself anyway. He heads for the ship that evening, but he mistakenly boards from the wrong dock. He actually hops aboard The Navigator, a ship recently sold by Betsey’s wealthy father to a smaller nation which is currently at war, and that evening they decide to set the boat adrift. However, Betsey tries to follow her father after he is captured and now she boards The Navigator, as well. Both Rollo and Betsey eventually find one another aboard the ship in the middle of the Pacific, and after a series of gags they are very nearly rescued by another ship but it turns away when Rolo raises the wrong flag. Then Rollo and Betsey develop a series of machines to help them with their daily lives, but the ship runs aground at a remote island filled with cannibals. While Rollo is underwater with his suit trying to fix the boat, Betsey is carried off by the cannibals until they catch sight of Rollo’s underwater suit which scares them away. The couple tries to escape in a small dinghy but it becomes filled with water as the cannibals close in. At the last moment, a submarine surfaces and saves Betsey and Rollo (an amusing gag which is later used in the James Bond film You Only live Twice).

The idea for The Navigator came to Buster Keaton as he envisioned two wealthy spoiled children who are cast adrift and must learn to survive together. The USAT Buford, named after the prominent Union Civil War hero, was the actual boat used in the film and it was re-purposed after being used in the Spanish American War and World War I. It was also used to deport radicals during the first so-called Palmer Raids of the “Red Scare”, where socialists and anarchists were deported from the United States to Russia, including Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman. It was also later dubbed the “Red Ark.” Buster Keaton’s producer Joseph Schenck nearly nixed the whole project when he discovered that Keaton purchased the boat for $25,000. Most of the filming of The Navigator was conducted off the coast of Catalina Island in the Bay of Avalon. The shots for the underwater scenes were originally intended to be filmed in a swimming pool but the pool unfortunately broke under the weight of the excess water, a cost Buster Keaton had to pay out of pocket, thus the remaining underwater scenes were filmed in Lake Tahoe. It was so cold that Buster Keaton could only stand being underwater for a few minutes before surfacing and reviving himself with straight bourbon. These little anecdotes help to round out Buster Keaton’s brilliance and dedication as a film-maker.

I picked up on the fact that film titles like The Navigator or The General have a certain double meaning. The Navigator references obviously the boat in the film, but it also points to Buster Keaton’s character, Rollo Treadway, who is navigating his way through life only to accidentally succeed in the end. The same can be said of The General which obviously references the train, but also it points to Buster Keaton’s character, Johnnie Grey, who transforms himself into a courageous, albeit under-appreciated, general of sorts in the Civil War.