Buster Keaton fans will want to focus on Criterion’s “The Cameraman”
Updated: Feb 13, 2021
BLU-RAY REVIEW / FRAME SHOTS
Silent superstar Buster Keaton plays an aspiring newsreel cameraman.
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“THE CAMERAMAN: THE CRITERION COLLECTION”
Blu-ray, 1928, unrated
Best extra: Commentary with British author Glenn Mitchell
MANY CONSIDER “The Cameraman” to be Buster Keaton’s last great film. “It’s his love letter to the machine that makes movies possible,” writes author Imogen Sara Smith in an essay included in Criterion’s salute to “The Great Stone Face.”
For nearly a decade, Keaton had been his own boss as director/actor of Buster Keaton Productions, an independent studio where he had complete creative freedom to improvise without written scripts – creating some of Hollywood’s best silent two-reelers and feature-length masterpieces, among them “The General” (1926) and “Seven Chances” (1925).
But “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” (1928), filmed 400 miles north of Hollywood in Sacramento, became one of a string of films to lose money, prompting producer Joseph Schenck to close the studio and sell Keaton’s contract to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Silent stars Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd tried to convince him not to join MGM, but he reluctantly went along with Schenck’s decision. He would later consider it the biggest mistake of his life.
Keaton, who had edited his films, felt “stymied at MGM,” writes Smith, complaining there were “too many cooks” foisting bad material on him. His stint at MGM was “the greatest tragedy. They didn’t understand what they had.
They only saw him as a performer, forgetting his abilities as a filmmaker.”
(1) "The Cameraman" was Keaton's first film of a two-picture contract with MGM. (2-4) Buster bumps into Sally Richards (Marceline Day) during a New York City ticker-tape parade. Afterward, he convinces Sally to let him make her tintype portrait.
“Not only did they misjudge his comic style, they also misunderstood his character: because he was short and didn’t smile, they saw him as a sad clown, a pathetic shrimp; because the comedy was physical, not verbal, the pegged him as a thick-witted dope.” – author Imogen Sara Smith
The working title for Keaton’s first MGM film was “Snapshots,” which was changed during production as he fought to make “The Cameraman” his way. Dozens of writers were assigned to develop gags, but Keaton tossed the script and removed subplots. Some of the funniest scenes were ad-libbed, including a solo pantomime at Yankee Stadium.
In excerpts from Keaton’s 1960 autobiography, also included in the 37-page booklet, he describes the chaos of filming in Manhattan. During the first shot, he carries his tintype camera across the trolley tracks at Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street with two cameras rolling. When the motorman spotted the actor, he shouted, “Hey Keaton!” So did the passengers. In no time, he was mobbed and the trolleys were backed up three blocks. Keaton and company were forced to film at daybreak for the rest of the NYC production.
By the first of May, Keaton was back in sunny California, filming one key scene at a large indoor swimming pool in Venice, where he and plus-sized unit manager Edward Brophy try to change into their swimsuits in a cramped, 3-by-3-foot cubicle with only two clothes hooks. The scene is a hoot, right up there with the Marx Brothers’ classic gag in a crowded train cabin in “A Night at the Opera” (1935).
(1) Buster shows Sally his new camera, which he hopes to be hired as an MGM newsreel photographer. (2) Sally and photographer Harold Stagg (Harold Goodwin). (3) Sally tells Buster about a warehouse fire and while leaving the office he breaks the front door glass. (4) A classic slapstick routine with an NYC cop. (5) Buster hops onto a moving fire engine, hoping it will take him to the warehouse fire.
The film’s length was 6,995 feet, shown on eight reels, says author Glenn Mitchell (“A to Z of Silent Film Comedy”) during his commentary recorded in 2004. The story goes that newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, owner of MGM’s Newsreel Division, would give the film good press since the storyline would be based on one of his photographers.
Keaton plays a lonely street tintype photographer who becomes infatuated with Sally (the lovely Marceline Day), who he meets during a ticker-tape parade and follows back to her job as a secretary for the MGM Newsreel Department. She convinces him to hock his camera for a motion picture camera, with hopes he can capture a newsworthy event and the editor will hire him.
All he can afford is a beat up, hand-cranked, French-made Pathé with long tripod legs. It doesn’t begin well: He mistakenly double-exposes his first roll of film by cranking it the wrong direction. In one of his most famous stunts, Keaton, unwieldy camera in hand, hops onto a moving fire engine hoping it will take him to a warehouse fire. Instead, it swings around the corner and returns to the station as Keaton hangs on.
The finale was filmed in Newport Beach, where the Balboa Pavilion is featured in the background and still stands today, author John Bengtson says in “Time Travelers,” a new featurette that highlights many of Keaton’s favorite on-location spots in L.A. Bengston also reveals that Keaton rented a bungalow just outside the MGM gates because he didn’t want a dressing room on the back lot.
And we can't forget the delightful Josephine the Monkey, who became Buster's sidekick during "The Cameraman."
(1&2) During a screening, Buster discovers he double-exposed his first roll of film, which has a nice avant-garde look. (3) Sally encourages Buster to not give up.
The 4K restoration was undertaken with three different film elements (1.37:1 aspect ratio) – a 35mm second-generation fine grain from MGM, a 35mm duplicate positive, and a 16mm print from the Library of Congress – because the original camera negative was destroyed in a 1965 vault fire at MGM. During the first 11 minutes, the 16mm print is the only available source, which reveals a much softer picture and nearly non-existent film grain. Once the 35mm prints are inserted into the new master the overall clarity jumps up big-time, with natural grain and a balanced gray-scale from shadows to highlights. Warner Bros. scanned the three films in Burbank, Calif., and the digital restoration was handled in Italy.
A new score was composed and conducted by Timothy Brock and captured in uncompressed stereo, which provides the right touches and mood.
The disc also includes Keaton’s last silent “Spite Marriage” (1929), with commentary from Bengtson and author Jeffrey Vance, who reveal that MGM had dropped Keaton’s old crew that helped during “The Cameraman.” Released 18 months after Warner Bros.’ “The Jazz Singer” ushered Hollywood into the world of talkies, Keaton plays Elmer, a pants-presser who falls for stage actress Trilby Drew (Dorothy Sebastian). The hopeless fan gets a chance to marry Drew after she’s dumped by her boyfriend.
Also carried over is “So Funny It Hurt: Buster Keaton & MGM,” a 2004 documentary narrated by Keaton friend and actor James Karen. He provides a walking tour of the old MGM studio, now owned by Sony Pictures, and shares plenty of stories. Alcoholism, he says, shattered his career and marriage to his wife Natalie. She got his prized, 20-room, Beverly Hills Spanish-style villa and custody of their two sons – and legally changed the boys’ last name. He wouldn’t see them for nearly a decade.
By the mid-1930s, Keaton filed for bankruptcy and MGM fired him, but within a decade he had beaten alcoholism and married MGM dancer Eleanor Norris. Twenty-five years his junior, she was his companion until his death in 1966 from lung cancer.
Keatons’s appearances on TV shows and in commercials helped reignite interest in his silent masterpieces, which he and Eleanor promoted to a new generation of moviegoers at film festivals around the world.
— Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer
The bathhouse routine was filmed in a three-by-three foot changing booth.
(1) After a swimming date, Buster and Sally hope to catch a ride on the bus. He opens the door and the overcrowded bus loses two passengers. (2) The "Great Stone Face" at his best. (3) Buster and his new sidekick the delightful Josephine the Monkey. (4) Buster captures a Chinatown Tong War.
(1) Buster saves Sally after a boating accident. (2) Everything is looking up for Buster.