Saturday, May 28, 2016

Stubs - The Camerman

The Cameraman (1928) Starring: Buster Keaton, Marceline Day, Harold Goodwin. Directed by Edward Sedgwick, Buster Keaton (uncredited). Story by Clyde Bruckman, Lew Lipton. Titles by Joseph Farnham. Produced by Buster Keaton, Lawrence Weingarten. Run Time: 67 minutes U.S. Black and White, Silent, Comedy.

As we mentioned in our review of Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), Buster Keaton soon afterwards lost the financial backing of Joseph M. Schenck and signed with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which was run by Nicholas Schenck, Joseph’s younger brother. He may not have thought he had much choice at the time and it would be a move Keaton would soon regret. When he was making features for Joseph, Keaton had the flexibility to shoot when an idea inspired him. Nicholas’ MGM was less forgiving, wanting product on a schedule.

I’m a little unsure whose idea The Cameraman was. Clyde Bruckman, who gets partial credit for the story, was one of Keaton’s gag men, but Lew Lipton was a studio writer. I’ve heard, in commentary on TCM, that Keaton pitched a lot of ideas to MGM, but all were turned down. Instead, they presented him with this, so perhaps he took a studio idea and re-worked it with his usual troupe of writers. Whatever the results, at least one more time, Keaton was able to come up with a winner.

Even before Steamboat Bill, Jr. was released in theaters (May 12, 1928), Keaton was already shooting The Cameraman (April 12 to June 26, 1928), so there wasn’t a lot of moss growing under his feet. Looking back on the output of the studios it seems like everything came out quickly and often. Making genius, however, was less common.

The film opens with a tribute to the hardworking newsreel cameraman, showing various men in dangerous and daring situations. But there is also another type of cameraman like Buster (Buster Keaton), a sidewalk tintype portrait photographer in New York City. When we first see him, he’s scrambling hard to find business. He is about to take a customer’s photo, when a crowd gathers and news crews, including MGM Newsreel, show up with cameras cranking to document the event. Buster is caught up in the crowd and thrust up against Sally (Marceline Day), a woman in the crowd.

Buster (Buster Keaton) is thrust up against Sally (Marceline Day) when the crowd surges.

She is beautiful and after the crowd has gone he asks is he can take her tintype. She reluctantly agrees and while Keaton gets caught up with posing her, he does manage to take her photo before Harold (Harold Goodwin), one of the MGM cameramen, comes back to get her. She is whisked away before Buster can give her the tintype.

Sally reluctantly poses so Buster can take a tintype of her.

But Buster knows where she works and has a photo of her to go by. Finding the MGM Newsreel office is easy, but tracking her down is not so. After finding out her name from the doorman, Buster follows a cameraman into the MGM office. When he asks the first person he sees if he’s seen Sally, the man thinks he’s daft, because Sally is sitting right by the door. Buster is almost out of the office before he finally sees her. When she offers to pay for the tintype, ten cents, he gives it to her as a gift.

He wants to take her portrait again and even though she doesn’t get off for hours, decides to wait for her. When he notices Harold around, Keaton decides the best way to get close to her is to work at MGM. He asks about working there, but the cameramen scoff at him. Sally, feeling sorry for his treatment, tells Buster he needs to get his own camera first and he rushes out to get one.

Buster wants to make good and goes looking for a fire. 

But new camera equipment is expensive and Buster has to settle for an old used one. More scoffs when he returns to MGM, but when a big fire at a warehouse breaks out, Sally encourages Buster to go film it. Trailing behind the other cameramen, Buster asks the first cop (Henry Gribbon) he runs into about where the fire is. When Buster sees a firetruck hurrying by, he runs and leaps onto the side of the engine, only to discover it’s returning to the station.

Buster jumps on a passing fire engine only to end up back at the station rather than the fire.

Unable to find the fire, Buster, as Sally suggests, tries to film anything and everything. He hits on the idea of filming the New York Yankees, but they’re playing in St. Louis. Left alone down on the field at Yankee stadium, Buster imagines himself playing in a game in one of the funnier sequences in the movie. First he is the pitcher, trying to pick off a runner at third, before trying to get the next batter out. Once that’s done, Buster turns to offense and takes a turn at batting. After a wild pitch that nearly beans him, Buster hits a home run, sliding head first into home plate. While he accepts the cheers of the imaginary crowd he realizes the groundskeeper has been watching him. Buster hurries away to look for other subjects to shoot.

The groundskeeper kicks Buster off the field after one of the funnier sequences in the film.

The first batch of film he brings back to MGM is not usable. As an example, through accidental double exposure, Buster has managed to make it look like a battleship is coming down on the city’s thoroughfares. While some of the effects could not have been done with a camera alone, the idea is that Buster is not up to MGM Newsreel standard and he is kicked out.

Buster's first footage ends up being laughed at.

Feeling sorry for him, Sally intercepts him in the hall and gives him some pointers about shooting film, like never crank backwards. Encouraged by her attention, Buster screws up the courage to ask her to go on a long walk with him the next day, which is Sunday. Sally tells him that she has other plans, but asks for his number in case they fall through.

Sunday and Buster is fully dressed early in the morning, waiting for the phone, which is several floors below, to ring. But first, he needs money and tries to open his bank of dimes. This proves harder than it should. Taking a hammer to the bank and using the wall for backing doesn’t work as the bank is pushed through the thin wall. Using the claw of the hammer, Buster rips into the wall to find the bank. Unable to break it open he throws the bank to the floor and the dimes fly out.

When the phone rings, Buster runs down several flights to the lobby, only to find it’s not for him. Dejected, Buster walks back up the stairs and, without noticing he’s overshot his own floor, ends up on the roof before he knows it. When he hears the phone is for him, he runs all the way back down, overshooting the lobby this time and ending up in the basement. Finally at the phone, Sally tells him she’s available.

While she’s still talking to him, Buster excitedly runs over to her boarding house, passing the cop again who takes notice. Sally is just realizing Buster is no longer on the phone when he shows up in the lobby behind her. After she goes to finish getting ready, Buster waits in the sitting room with the other tenants and the landlady who chaperons the girls. It isn’t long before he causes a commotion.

Sally doesn't realize that Buster is not on the other end of the call.

Finally out on the street, Sally goes one way and Buster the other. He decides to take her to The Plunge, a pool, and they hurry to catch the bus. But once on board, they get separated, Sally takes seat on the bottom floor and Buster gets pushed up to the top of the double decker bus. When he realizes Sally is seated below him, he climbs down and sits on the bumper so he can be next to her. Once again, the cop takes notice, especially when Buster gets bumped off his perch and must run to get back on.

Buster rides next to Sally even though there is no room on the bus.

At the Plunge, the two rent swimsuits and Sally goes into the ladies room to change. Buster ends up sharing a changing cube with a heavyset man (Edward Brophy). Rather than taking turns the two men try to change at the same time, getting into each other’s way and clothes as they do. Squeezed and throttled, Keaton does emerge, though he is wearing a swim suit that is easily three sizes too large.

Keaton ends up at a changing room with a heavyset man (Edward Brophy).

Sally, who is quite fetching in her skintight suit, gets the attention of a gaggle of boys who follow her and Buster into the water. When Sally tries to play catch with Buster, the men, who are much larger, practically drown him as they fight for the ball. Finally, Sally pulls Buster away and they sit together on the rim of a fountain in the center of the pool.

It should come as no surprise that Sally attracts the attention of other men at the Plunge pool.

Watching the divers, Buster decides to show off for Sally and climbs up to the high dive. But when he hits the water, his suit comes off. Buster doesn’t realize he’s naked until he starts to get out. Sally wants to leave and gets out of the pool to change. Buster, though, is stuck. That is until he hits on the idea and steals a large woman’s bloomer bottoms and wears them out of the water.

Buster tries to get out of the pool when he realizes he's lost his swimsuit.

Sally wants to go to the beach, but they aren’t able to squeeze into the taxi going that way. Things are so tight that when Buster opens the door, passengers fall out. After helping push the doors closed again, Buster and Sally are still on the outside looking in. Just then Harold drives up in his convertible coupe and offers Sally a ride home. It looks like rain and Buster helps Harold put up the top, but Harold insists Buster ride in the rumble seat. By the time they get to Sally’s, Buster is soaked. Sally gives Buster a kiss on the cheek and he starts to walk home in the rain.

Buster is soaked by the time he gets Sally  home after their date.

But our friend the cop, having seen Buster do some crazy looking things all day, pulls him aside to check his reflexes to see if he’s crazy. But Buster manages to escape into the rainy night, losing the cop who falls down while chasing him.

The next day, Buster is waiting in the MGM newsreel office bright and early. When a hot tip comes in about trouble in Chinatown, Sally gives the scoop to Buster, who once again rushes out to cover the story. He is in such a rush that he runs into an organ grinder and the two collapse on top of the man’s monkey. Thinking it’s dead, a passing policeman makes Buster pay the hurdy gurdy man for the animal and then forces him to take it away. But the monkey is not dead, only stunned and insists on staying with Buster from then on.

The Tong Wars are just getting underway and Buster takes great effort and risk to shoot the events. More than once, a leader of one of the rival tongs sends someone to kill Buster, to stop the filming, but each assassin is thwarted. Despite escaping gunfire, Buster finds himself stuck in a room with one of the Tong leaders and some of his loyal followers. They are moving menacingly towards him when the police arrive and save Buster. But one of the cops is the one who has been observing Buster and he tries to get Buster thrown into a paddy wagon headed to Bellevue hospital. But once again, Buster escapes and makes his way back to the newsreel office.

Buster dutifully keeps hand cranking his camera while bullets fly during the Tong Wars.

Excited, Buster tells Sally what he’s been through. When Edward J. Blake (Sidney Bracey), the newsreel company’s boss, overhears, he wants to see the footage. But when Buster opens the camera the film is missing from the reel and all that remains is a torn piece. Buster apparently forgot to load the film, even though he’s sure he had. When Blake wants to know who gave Buster the tip, Sally is the only likely candidate. But rather than see her get fired, Buster offers to leave and never return to MGM.

Buster though doesn’t give up filming and sets out to record a regatta/boat race. When he loads the film, he realized that he has the Tong footage and suspects that the mischievous monkey had switched reels on him.

Meanwhile, for whatever reason, Sally and Harold are involved in the regatta and go speeding by in one of the boats. When Harold tries to take a sharp turn the two are ejected from the boat. Harold makes it back to shore, but Sally is trapped by the boat, which continues to speed around her in a tight circle. Buster jumps into another boat, which he steers into the unmanned boat’s way. Buster than swims back to shore with Sally and lays her down on his coat. Not sure what to do, Buster hurries to a nearby drug store to get supplies to revive her.

Buster carries an unconscious Sally out of the water after the boat accident.

Harold, meanwhile makes it to shore and sees Sally. He walks over to her and cradles her just as she wakes up. She is impressed by Harold’s bravery for saving her and the two walk off together. Buster arrives just in time to see them leave.

Broken-hearted, Buster sends his Tong war footage to MGM offering it free of charge. Edward decides to screen it for a laugh with Sally and Harold sitting in. But not only is the Tong footage some of the best camera work the boss has ever seen, but there is also footage from the boat race and rescue, which the monkey apparently shot. Sally now knows the truth about Harold and Edward sends her out to find Buster.

Edward J. Blake (Sidney Bracey), the boss at the newsreel office, is impressed by Buster's footage. So is Sally.

Back to being a tintype photographer, Sally finds Buster on the street. She tells him that the boss wants him back and that there is going to be a great reception for him. At that moment, the streets once again fill with cheering fans and ticker tape. Buster thinks the fuss is for him, but we see that it is really for Charles Lindbergh.

Buster thinks the crowd and adulation is for him, instead it's for Charles Lindbergh.

Two historical notes: Tintypes are photographs taken on a sheet of iron that is coated with lacquer or enamel. These have been around since the 1860’s and were falling out of favor by the time this film was made. The other is that most movie studios, like TV broadcast networks today, had news divisions, which presented newsreels as part of their program of films. MGM News was actually produced by William Randolph Hearst’s company. In 1930, they were renamed News of the Day.

While the film received good reviews, MGM took away most of Buster’s creative control over his films. This is not to say that the films he made at MGM were not financially successful, only that they were no longer really Keaton films. His independence and creativity were stifled by the studio in favor of the bottom line.

The Cameraman was followed by Spite Marriage (1929), Keaton’s last silent film. He would successfully transition to the talkies with Free and Easy (1930). In those early sound days, the studio would have the actors do three takes of each scene, one in English, one in Spanish and the third in French or German. The actors would have to learn to speak the foreign languages phonetically. Keaton would later complain that not only did MGM make him do bad films, he had to do them three times.

The studio would eventually pair him with Jimmy Durante for a series of films: The Passionate Plumber (1932) Speak Easily (1932), and What! No Beer? (1933). By the time the last film was released, things had gotten so bad between MGM and Keaton, that they fired him despite the film being a success.

Edward Sedgwick directed all of Keaton’s MGM films. Like many of Keaton’s independent films, the actor would have a hand in the direction, whether credited or not. Despite the fact that MGM thrust Sedgwick onto Keaton, the two were actually good friends, bonding over a mutual love of baseball. The two would at one time share an office at MGM. Keaton would even suggest Sedgwick as a director for the Red Skelton starrer, A Southern Yankee (1948).

Buster sits next to director Edward Sedgwick on the set of The Cameraman.

Marceline Day would start her film career as one of Mack Sennett’s Bathing Beauties appearing in Picking Peaches (1924). She would make comedies with Harry Langdon and Westerns with Hoot Gibson, Art Acord and Jack Hoxie, before appearing in more dramatic roles opposite the likes of Lionel Barrymore, John Barrymore, Ramon Navarro and Lon Chaney. In 1927, she was named one of the 13 WAMPAS Baby Stars, a group of “future” starts which included Joan Crawford, Mary Astor, Janet Gaynor and Dolores Del Rio. Despite her successes, Day retired from the movie business by 1933. Perhaps her best known role, outside of The Cameraman, was in London After Midnight (1927) opposite Chaney directed by Tod Browning.

Like London After Midnight, The Cameraman was, for a time, considered lost. However, a complete print was discovered in Paris in 1968 and a higher quality print, though with missing scenes, was found in 1991. The two prints were combined for the film we have today.

And it would have been a shame if The Cameraman had been lost to the world. While the film doesn’t have the same death-defying acts as say Steamboat Bill Jr., there are still some very challenging stunts, such as Keaton leaping onto the fender of a moving bus or riding a collapsing platform as it falls two stories to the ground. I hate to say it, but Keaton is funny just running and he does a lot of that in this film.

Like some other of his films, the big premise is often there as a backdrop for other sight gag sequences. Take the imaginary game at Yankee Stadium; being a cameraman only tangentially sets that up. But it’s watching what Keaton does with the place and situation that makes it memorable. This is a genius at work. While the sequence is probably well planned in advance, it comes across as one long improvisation; like a silent and subdued version of what Robin Williams used to do so well.

Another example is the sequence at The Plunge. This has more to do with setting Keaton off in an indoor aquatic environment and seeing what he and his writers can make of it, than anything else. You can almost imagine the thinking process. Start off with him changing clothes in the same small room as a larger man and have him end up wearing a suit that is too large for him. The look is funny, but it’s what happens to him in and out of it that makes the routine a classic.

Shooting the changing room scene with Edward Brophy.

And the film isn’t in a hurry for its jokes to pay off. The too big suit coming off is accomplished, but only after setting up the still tenuous relationship between Sally and Buster. You get a real sense from Sally that while she’s flattered by the attention of the other men in the pool, she’d still rather be alone with Buster. She’s a girl who wants to have fun, but still keep her morals in check. Having recently seen her in the stills that make up London After Midnight, it is good to remember that she was a fine actress in her day. And she is the right type of actress Buster needs for the romantic angle that is a part of most of his films to date; pretty, smart and playful.

While the film is funny, there is also pathos. Buster is in love with Sally and very shy at the same time. You don’t need words to know what he’s going through. Like Charlie Chaplin, Buster was able to be more than just the comedian in his best films. The Cameraman’s Buster is a three-dimensional character with love, hope and ambition. Keaton doesn’t get any real credit as an actor, few comedians do, but he is able to do more than just make you laugh; he makes you care about his character.

In an example of the pathos, Buster is heart-broken when he
returns after saving her life and  finds Sally is gone.

There is so much to like about The Cameraman. I’ve seen it three times, including once at the Silent Movie Theater in Los Angeles, the subsequent DVD release and once on TCM. This is definitely a comedy that stands up to multiple viewings. Rather than knowing what’s coming next, you anticipate how Keaton will do his next bit. And he never disappoints.

If you’re a Keaton fan like I am, then you should definitely see The Cameraman. If you’re not a Keaton fan than this film should make you one.

Be sure to check out other silent film reviews at our Silent Cinema Review Hub.

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