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The Cameraman

The Cameraman(1928)

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teaser The Cameraman (1928)

"Buster," a hapless tintype photographer, bumps into a woman in a crowd and convinces her to have her picture taken. Instantly smitten, he tracks Sally down and delivers the tintype to the MGM newsreel office where she works. Believing that he can't hope to compete for her affections against Stagg, the rakish newsreel cameraman, he buys a dilapidated movie camera and tries to break into the newsreel business himself. His first footage is laughably incompetent: all he gets for his efforts is an organ grinder's monkey. His one big break, a fearless attempt to film a Chinatown gang war, is spoiled by bad luck. And when he saves Sally from drowning, Stagg manages to claim the rescue for himself. However, his pet monkey has learned a few new tricks on the sly.

The Cameraman (1928) was the result of Buster Keaton's troubled first stint at MGM, which lasted from January 1928 to February 1933. Joseph Schenck, Keaton's producer up to that time, could no longer afford to produce films independently due both to poor box office returns on several expensive projects--not least among them Keaton's masterpiece, The General (1927)--and to the financial uncertainty and heavy costs associated with the industry's conversion to sound pictures. Schenck himself gave up producing films, focusing his energies instead on administering United Artists. He recommended that Keaton sign up with MGM, since his brother Nicholas Schenck had recently taken over as president of Loew's, MGM's parent company. Since MGM had previously distributed Battling Butler (1926)--Keaton's most lucrative film to date--the studio was eager to sign him on and offered him a salary of $3,000 a week, making him one of its highest-paid stars.

According to Keaton, his first proposal to Thalberg was a story in which Keaton would play the scrawny nephew of Marie Dressler, sent by her sister to protect her against Indians and other dangers during her train ride out West. Thalberg dismissed the concept as "a little frail." Instead the studio came up with the story of a newsreel cameraman, apparently conceived as a kind of flattery to William Randolph Hearst. Ultimately, the basic subject suited Keaton's temperament beautifully. For one, the film-related subject matter allowed Keaton to indulge his passion for the film medium, as one can see in his playful use of cinematic devices such as reverse motion and double exposure, recalling the virtuosic self-reflexivity of Sherlock, Jr. (1924). As film historian David Robinson points out, The Cameraman is in some ways a summation of Keaton's career up to that point. It includes allusions to several of his early films, including Coney Island (1917), an early short with Fatty Arbuckle, The Boat (1921) and Cops (1922).

Still, in retrospect, it is not entirely surprising that Keaton, the brilliant improviser, and MGM, the most conservative studio in Hollywood under the leadership of Irving Thalberg and Louis B. Mayer, would prove to be a difficult match. In his 1960 memoirs My Wonderful World of Slapstick Keaton characterizes the move as "the worst mistake of my career." To start with, he was separated from the talented collaborators on his previous projects: "When I went over to MGM I was again assured that every effort would be made to let me continue working with my team whenever possible. It turned out to be possible very seldom. I do not think that this was anyone's fault. Usually, when I needed the old gang, one of them would be busy on a Norma Shearer picture, another on a Lon Chaney picture, and so on."

Keaton also had less control over the story development process than before; by his account, some twenty-two writers worked on the script. Thalberg had his own ideas about how to make a successful story--according to Keaton: "Thalberg wanted me involved with gangsters, and get into trouble with this one and that one, and that was my fight--to eliminate those extra things." The studio also forbade him to perform the kinds of breathtaking--and dangerous--stunts that had added visceral excitement to his previous comedies. Lastly, Keaton felt that Thalberg appreciated slapstick comedy but didn't understand his creative methods, particularly the necessity of improvisation: "Slapstick comedy has a format, but it is hard to detect in its early stages unless you are one of those who can create it. The unexpected was our staple product, the unusual our object, and the unique was the ideal we were always hoping to achieve."

Nonetheless, thanks in part to unexpected difficulties encountered during the shoot in New York--among them being mobbed by crowds of adoring fans on the street--Keaton was able to convince Thalberg to let him depart from the script and include more improvisations. Some of the resulting gags--from his attempt to break a piggy bank that destroys his wall instead to his solo pantomime of all the roles in a baseball game at an eerily empty Yankee Stadium--are among the most inventive of his career. In his next film for MGM, Spite Marriage (1929), he would have even fewer opportunities for improvisation. MGM demanded a detailed shooting script and Keaton was not allowed to deviate from it to any significant degree, though the film still holds up well today. His relationship with the MGM studio heads deteriorated progressively and he fell prey to alcohol, but his films continued to be profitable through the conversion to sound.

The Cameraman was released in September 1928 to positive, if not necessarily exceptional, notices. A reviewer in Variety wrote: "The same old stencil about a boob that does everything wrong and cashes in finally through sheer accident. The familiar pattern has been dressed up with some bright gags and several sequences where the laughs come thick and fast. All in all, it will probably deliver general satisfaction." The film was, however, a great success, grossing $797,000--Keaton's highest returns to date. Keaton himself considered The Cameraman to be one of his best films, a judgment which many today would support.

Producer: Buster Keaton
Director: Edward Sedgwick
Script: Clyde Bruckman, Lew Lipton, Richard Shayer
Titles: Joe Farnham
Photography: Elgin Lessley and Reggie Lanning
Editor: Hugh Wynn
Technical Director: Fred Gabourie
Cast: Buster Keaton (Luke "Buster" Shannon), Marceline Day (Sally), Harold Gowin (Stagg), Sidney Bracey (the Boss), Harry Gribbon (the Cop), Edward Brophy (the Man in Dressing Room), Dick Alexander (the Big Sea Lion), Josephine the monkey.

by James Steffen

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