Lea of Silentology is hosting the second annual Buster Keaton blogathon, in honor of one of the greatest comedians of the silent era. Buster’s films start appearing pretty early in my list of silents seen (now at 1,113!), though I didn’t list everything exactly chronologically until about #125 (The Wind). At any rate, their early inclusion on the list indicates I was introduced to Buster in late 2004 or early 2005, and I’ve loved him ever since.
I decided to cover The Cameraman, Buster’s first MGM film, which many people consider his last truly great film. I initially considered doing Spite Marriage, his final silent, since I’ve always liked it and it deserves more love, but I just like The Cameraman more. It has more warmth, heart, soul, and ruach (spirit).
Released 22 September 1928, The Cameraman was Buster’s first film under a studio system. Though it was quite difficult to give up creative control and independence, he’d already surrendered complete creative control after The General (which I personally consider overrated) didn’t do so well with critics. United Artists assigned him a production manager, which he put up with for two more features, College and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (my personal favorite of his films).
Buster joined MGM and agreed to work under the studio system in 1928, not realizing he’d have to give up even more creative control. On the one hand, we can’t get mad at MGM for making their films in a certain way. All studios had their own style of filmmaking. However, the overall studio system just wasn’t a good match for someone like Buster, just as I’d never be happy with traditional publishing unless I were guaranteed a majority of creative control. I’d never, e.g., pretend to be excited over yet another headless, hairless bare chest book cover or agree to chop out an important supporting character, just as Buster didn’t want stunt doubles or dialogue-heavy scripts.
The film starts by talking about the brave, daredevil photographers, modern heroes who defy death to bring us amazing photographs. But then there’s another type of photographer, the humble tintyper, among whose ranks our hero is. One of the things I love about Buster is how he always played ordinary little guys taking on bigger and stronger adversaries through his own wits, this underdog we naturally root for. We kind of know he’ll always triumph, but we want to see exactly how he’ll do it this time.
While Buster’s taking a gentleman’s picture for ten cents, a ticker tape parade comes to his part of the street, and presently a lot of other photographers crowd around him. Buster ends up pressed against Sally (Marceline Day), and when the crowd dissipates, he asks if he might take her picture. Sally agrees, though before he can give it to her, her jerk boyfriend Harold shows up and they drive away.
Buster tracks her down to MGM offices and finds out she works in the newsreel department. He offers to give Sally the picture for free, as a gift, and presently asks if he might get a job there. The arrogant Harold informs him he’ll have to get a real camera, so off he goes to buy an upgraded motion picture camera for $140. Being the 1920s, he of course just has to buy it from a Jewish pawnbroker. At least this stock stereotype is relatively harmless and wasn’t intended to be offensive. Hollywood still has a long way to go at creating realistic, well-rounded Jewish characters and storylines, but you take what you can get considering.
Back at MGM, news breaks of a fire by the Grand Central Warehouse, and Sally urges Buster to film it too. The newsreel department will buy any footage, so long as it’s interesting, and it could be his chance to break in. Buster, however, has no idea where the fire is, and just goes around taking pictures of anything he can get. His misfortunes increase when his footage is screened and it’s revealed he can’t work a movie camera worth beans. Almost everything is either double-exposed or overexposed.
Sally tells him not to be discouraged, and Buster takes courage to ask her out. She says she’s already got a date, but asks for his number just in case, since she might call. Buster eagerly anticipates her call all day, and when she finally calls, she says her date’s off. Buster doesn’t even wait for her to continue speaking, but rushes off to her apartment while she’s still on the phone. On his way there, he’s spied by some cop whom he accidentally bonked on the head with his camera earlier, a cop who continues dogging him for the rest of the film. Keep in mind, this is pre-Miranda Rights!
They end up at the public baths, after being unable to sit together on a double-decker bus. Buster has to share a changing room with a decidedly unfriendly fellow and ends up with the other guy’s bathing suit. Buster’s a lithe, little guy (only 5’6), while this other fellow’s on the heavier side. As might be expected, Buster eventually loses his bathing suit. Cleverly, he saves himself by nabbing part of a woman’s very old-fashioned bathing gown. Afterward, jerky Harold shows up and gives Sally a ride home, but spurns Buster, even though it presently starts raining.
As a sinistral chauvinist, I loved seeing Marceline Day throwing with her left hand!
On Monday, Buster is told he’s out of a job, but Sally helps him by tipping him off about a potentially interesting holiday celebration in Chinatown. On his way there, Buster knocks down an organ-grinder’s monkey and is forced to buy it. Shortly afterwards, the monkey comes to himself and won’t leave Buster’s side, even when he’s in the middle of shooting a Tong War.
Buster is relieved when the cops come to break up the Tong War, but one of them is the cop who’s been riding his tail over the last few days. The cop tries to get Buster committed, but he escapes and brings his footage to MGM. Sadly, there’s only one short strip of film in the camera, and Buster is mocked and humiliated. To save Sally from having to leave her job, Buster promises to quit hanging around MGM.
Harold and Sally go on a date by the Westport Yacht Club Regatta on Tuesday, where Buster and his monkey have also gone. While there, Buster realizes the monkey changed the film box by Chinatown. Then, while Buster is filming the regatta, Harold and Sally get in a terrible accident, and Buster saves Sally after Harold ditches her. While Buster is getting medicine, Harold returns and lets Sally think he saved her. Needless to say, Buster is heartbroken when he sees them walking off the beach together. All the while, the monkey is still filming.
Buster drops his movie camera and all its footage off by MGM and returns to tintyping, but there’s a surprise in store for everyone when the footage is screened.
This is such a sweet, dear, cute, charming film, with so many great scenes and moments, and a lovely capsule of what everyday life was like in 1928. You can’t go wrong with this one.
P.S.: I’d be remiss if I didn’t invite my readers to consider signing up for the A to Z Challenge, which runs every April. All you do is blog alphabetically every day of April except Sundays, with or without a theme. If you have a classic film-themed blog, you could do actors, directors, producers, costume designers, films, filming locations, anything you can think of. It’s a really great way to network and meet other people, both in the overall blogging community and with the same blogging topics. I can’t wait to reveal my themes for both of my blogs in March!