Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Films of Buster Keaton: The Cameraman (1928)

The Cameraman (1928)
Directed by: Buster Keaton & Edward Sedgwick.
Written by: Clyde Bruckman & Lew Lipton & Richard Schayer & Joseph Farnham & Al Boasberg & Byron Morgan.
Starring: Buster Keaton (Buster), Marceline Day (Sally), Harold Goodwin (Stagg), Sidney Bracey (Éditor), Harry Gribbon (Cop), Edward Brophy (Man in Bath-House).

The Cameraman was the first film Keaton made after signing that dreaded contract with MGM – the one he would later call the worst decision of his career. It’s also the only one he made for MGM in which he retained creative control – and even that was pretty much by default. MGM didn’t want Keaton directing anymore – just acting – and they made him work with a script in all but two sequences, where often Keaton would improvise his gags on set. The studio hired Edward Sedgwick to direct The Cameraman, but it became apparent quickly that he couldn’t get what was needed – and Keaton took over from there. The Cameraman is often seen as Keaton’s last stand – his last great movie – and even if I think his follow-up (and only other feature he directed, at least partly for MGM), Spite Marriage is underrated; it is hard to argue with that. The Cameraman is a great movie – even if you can tell while you’re watching it that something is just slightly different than Keaton’s other films. It’s just a little neater and tidier than his others – a little more polished, with a little more emphasis on the romantic subplot. You wonder if Keaton spends the last act of the film with a monkey because studio execs thought people like monkeys (they’re right by the way). Somehow though, Keaton makes it all work. The Cameraman is simply a joy to behold.

Keaton stars, as he often did, playing a guy just trying to make an honest buck – taking Tintypes for 10 cents a pop on the streets of New York. It’s while doing this that he meets Sally (Marceline Day) – and immediately falls for her. She works in the MGM Newsreel office – and he wants to impress her, so he decides to become a newsreel cameraman instead. He buys a cheap camera, and heads out into the streets to try and take footage of anything – and of course screws up. But Sally is sympathetic to him – he’s sweet, he’s rather lovable, so she agrees to go out “walking” with him one day. The movie climaxes with not one but two action sequences – the first where Keaton (now with a monkey assistant – don’t ask) films a gang war in Chinatown, and the next at the yacht club during a race, where Keaton makes a daring rescue.

The plot, as it always is in a Keaton film, is rather simple. That’s not why we watch a Keaton movie anyway – we watch it for the gags – and The Cameraman is filled with wonderful comic set pieces. One of the only two segments where Keaton was allowed to improvise has him head to Yankee stadium – where he finds himself alone on the field, and pantomimes first him pitching and field, and finally stepping up to the plate and hitting an inside the park homerun. Keaton was a big baseball fan, and the entire sequence is wonderfully performed and shot – I loved him running the bases in a single take, with the slight move of the camera. The date sequence provides lots of opportunity for Keaton to embarrass himself in front of Sally, and still try to maintain his dignity. The best moment has him and a rather large man (Edward Brophy) both inside a narrow changing room trying to get ready to go swimming – which of course ends with them switching swimsuits.

The highlights are, of course, at the climax – especially the extended gang war, in which Keaton doesn’t just film, but at times becomes an active participant – I loved the way he hands a knife back to a fighting gang member so he can keep filming – subtly manipulating the news for a greater story. It is one of the most elaborately staged set pieces in all of Keaton’s work – and he pulls it off wonderfully. The speedboat sequence at the end is not quite as thrilling – but it comes close. It also ends with what may just be the most heartbreaking and sentimental shot in all of Keaton’s work – with him alone at the beach.

A couple of things stood out to me as different about The Cameraman than much of Keaton’s work. Often, even in his best movies, the “girl” he’s after is treated as little more than an afterthought – someone Keaton has to impress in order to win over. There are some exceptions – Kathryn McGuire in Sherlock Jr. proves herself a more capable detective than Keaton, and McGuire (again) in The Navigator is given a more fully rounded character to play – as unlike the rest of the women in Keaton’s movies, we see her slowly fall in love with love with him, rather than that love being treated as a given. I’m not sure Marceline Day is quite given that much to do in The Cameraman – but it’s certainly a little more complex than most of the roles for women in Keaton’s films – or at least has more screen time. Other than Keaton falling in love with a cow in Go West, it’s also the most sentimental of the love stories in Keaton’s films. It doesn’t approach Chaplin levels of sentimentality, but it’s as close as Keaton would come in his career. The other thing is the monkey. In movies today, adding a monkey is usually a desperate attempt to increase the humor in a lame comedy – and I doubt things were much different in 1928. The difference here is that Keaton makes the monkey work. This is one of the greatest monkey performances in the history of the movies – especially the scene where the monkey regains consciousness (Keaton thinks he has killed the poor animal) – where the monkey holds his head in a way that make me believe he really was coming to after blacking out. The rest of the movie, the monkey provides even more frantic energy during the gang war sequence. In short, the monkey is brilliant in the movie. When you add in the performance of Brown Eyes in Go West, and that dog in the short The Scarecrow, it really makes you see that Keaton was a genius at directing animals.

The film does have a more polished sheen than most of Keaton’s work – which had a more chaotic spirit. This undoubtedly was because the studio made Keaton work from a script. The studio even insisted that the last shot in the movie contained Keaton smiling (the horror!) until test audiences hated it so much, they allowed him to use a more typical Stone Faced Keaton shot. The studio interference helped in some ways though – by making him use a script, The Cameraman becomes one of Keaton’s more focused efforts, and doesn’t suffer like some of his films from drifting from one set piece to the next with no plan. MGM loved the film so much that according to the trivia section on IMDB, they say they made their directors watch it for years after to see a perfectly constructed comedy.

The Cameraman is pretty much perfectly constructed – and should have been the template MGM used for years to come with Keaton – make him do things a little bit more by the book than he was used to, but basically let him do what he wanted. Sadly, they didn’t do that, and it wasn’t long before they shoehorned him into some talkies – that while popular and profitable, made Keaton miserable, which contributed to his alcoholism, and his contract being terminated in the early 1930s. The Cameraman in many ways was the last hurrah for Keaton. But it was a great one.

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