In which one roll of film is all the exposure Buster Keaton needs.
Until watching The Camerman I had found Buster Keaton to be a less emotional performer than Charlie Chaplin (the comparison is needless, they both excel, but often made). Here, he changed my mind with a central role that’s more sweetly romantic than those in Sherlock Jr and The General, and more complete than the closest competitor in Steamboat Bill Jr.
Released in 1928, the same year as Steamboat Bill Jr, The Cameraman was Keaton’s first film for MGM – a move he later regretted as his creative control eroded over time. He is still on top form here though, with much of the film made to his instruction. The film was considered lost as part of the 1965 MGM fire but two prints surfaced in 1968 and 1991 which together make the version of the movie available to us today.
The film follows Keaton in the main role of ‘Buster’, a cheap photographer working the streets of New York. One day, he falls for a girl called Sally who is a secretary at the MGM newsreel office. To get to know her, Buster loans the money for a new camera and begins to try and sell the footage to the studio. Though his early efforts are disastrous, Sally agrees to go on a date with Buster, which leads to a range of mishaps and misunderstandings.
After their date, Sally gives Buster a scoop and sends him to film a street war in Chinatown. He manages to survive the experience, but it seems that he forgot to load film into his camera. Humiliated and with Sally in trouble for not sharing the tip, Buster promises to leave MGM and never return. He doesn’t give up though and hopes to both become a cameraman and win Sally back.
The film is packed with classic Keaton stunts and pratfalls, plus many lowkey but equally hilarious set-pieces. My personal favourites are a recurring joke where Buster breaks the glass in the MGM office door and the moment he realises he’s lost his swimsuit after a high dive (inspiring a classic Mr Bean episode decades later).
The highlight is the Tong war in Chinatown, which gives Keaton license to show off his comic timing and agility. As the battle rages around him, with punches flying and bullets whistling by, Buster films it all, leaping from one position to the next, deftly avoiding a knife attack in one moment and escaping machine gun fire in the next. It’s an expertly choreographed scene with what feels like hundreds of actors all hitting their marks exactly on cue.
The madness is grounded by perhaps Keaton’s most grounded relationship – making this more of a rom-com than a slapstick silent film. Buster’s relationship with Sally is believable, pure and comes to a tragic crossroads when he’s forced to leave to help save her job. There’s no rushed conclusion like in Steamboat Bill Jr and his nemesis Harold is perfect foil battling for Sally’s affections.
Although it proved a false dawn for Keaton, his first MGM picture may be his most complete achievement – the moment where his energy, timing, storytelling, slapstick and performance all chimed together in perfect silent harmony.
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