The Turner Classic Movie Festival laid on yet another special occasion for Saturday night, inviting Vince Giordano and his Nighthawks Orchestra to perform their tailored accompaniment to Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman (1928), and getting Leonard Maltin onstage to give a typically first-rate introduction. As he pointed out, a drummer without cocoanut shells is not worth your trouble; the Orchestra a spiffy outfit blowing 20s tunes in dead-on style and the cocoanuts were great.
- Directors: Edward Sedgwick, Buster Keaton
- Story: Clyde Bruckman and Lew Lipton
- Producers: Lawrence Weingarten, Buster Keaton
- Camera: Reggie Lanning, Elgin Lessley
- Cast: Buster Keaton, Marceline Day, Harold Goodwin, Sidney Bracey, Harry Gribbon
Taking tintypes on the street, Buster runs into a beautiful young woman who works at the MGM newsreel agency. He trades in his clunky tintype device for a broken-down motion picture camera, but proves to be inept at its operation. Through various travails he becomes a successful cameraman and a hero; he gets the girl and all is well.
The Cameraman is the beginning of the end for Buster. After a string of incredible films created in an atmosphere of complete freedom, he moved to MGM and was pretty much put in a straitjacket. Some looseness remained in this, his first outing for them, but his art would become increasingly compromised, and one can already see it: the gags are simpler, less organically developed and character-driven, and whilst there are extended sequences like the terrific Tong War, in which Buster and his camera get swept up, the comic parts of the movie tend to comprise separate bits of business rather than the coherent, fundamentally integrated gag sequences of his past – much of the end of his previous feature College, for example, where the separate bits of business are all in service of his rushing to get the girl; the Tong War sequence, by comparison, is mostly a succession of disconnected gags; its throughline has no momentum, despite hilarious moments; and it has a complete non-ending. The same goes for much of the film.
Which is not to say that there are not excellent parts – Buster leaping casually on and off fast-moving vehicles, for example – and given the subject there is of course a nice amount of cinematic self-awareness and film-making jokes (coincidentally or not, the comically unusable footage he first shoots is a dead ringer for Vertov). There’s also a street-corner cop who functions as a most unusual audience surrogate; every time they encounter one another, Buster is in yet another crazy situation and the cop’s goggling eyes remind us explicitly that without the soothing flow of story, the constituent parts of what we are seeing are not ordinary, not reality. This is only one of a number of elements that work to break the mystique of cinema, whether deliberately or not, which are of a different, less enchanted cast from the magic of Sherlock Jr – it turns out in the end even a monkey can make a movie.
When Buster and the cop first meet, however, an extended exchange of misunderstanding plays out entirely through inter-titles, and seems to epitomize how Keaton’s comedy was going to be dead-ended from here on. Likewise an extended tussle with a fat man in a small changing room feels un-Keatonish in its restriction (but is nonetheless hilarious!). He even executes the perfect slip on a banana peel but for no reason other than to do it – if the rest of the gags were in service to story or character it would be an amusingly irrelevant addition; as it is, it plays like a resigned absurdity, advertising its own spuriousness.
Buster is of course his usual terrific self, but has has few truly spectacular stunts to perform. The moving vehicles are a highlight, as well as that consistently balletic quality of perfect timing to his entrances, pratfalls and moments of realization, and the dash from telephone to the boarding house of his beloved is a perfection of physical comedy in harmony with the emotional thrust of the scene. His paramour, Marceline Day, is particularly lovely, though given predictably little to do, and the real co-star is a delightful capuchin dressed in a sailor’s suit whom Buster acquires in amusingly macabre fashion. The monkey is hilarious, of course, but the unhappy truth is that you know there’s something wrong with a Keaton picture when it needs a monkey, and you get the feeling Buster knows it too.