Friday, April 22, 2011

The Cameraman

"When acclaiming our modern heroes, let's not forget The News Reel Cameraman. . . . the daredevil who defies death to give us pictures of the world's happenings. And there are other types of photographers." (Intertitle at the opening of The Cameraman, fading in on Buster as a tintype street hawker.)

Surely one of the most beautiful and sad films ever made is The Cameraman (1928), the first film Buster Keaton made for MGM, after the long and quite amazing run of feature films, ten in all, that he made for his brother-in-law Joseph M. Schenck, between The Three Ages in 1923 and Steamboat Bill, Jr. in 1928. Both Chaplin and Harold Lloyd reportedly advised him against signing with MGM, which meant giving up creative control. But Keaton's last three films for Schenck, including what most critics regard is his masterpiece, The General, had been box office flops. He had seen his great friend, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, the man who discovered him, destroyed by Hollywood by the scandal surrounding an alleged rape. Arbuckle was acquitted after three sensational trials, but he was effectively banned from making any more movies.(1) Keaton's marriage floundered after his wife Natalie Talmadge announced in 1924 that she wanted nothing more to do with sex. He was drinking heavily by the time he signed with MGM, but it was still too early to describe him as washed up. To suggest that his heart was broken would be closer to the truth, and it helped give The Cameraman, especially for anyone acquainted with Keaton's career as a silent filmmaker of genius, a heartbreaking beauty.

One thing that The Cameraman dramatizes is Keaton's unique familiarity with the inner workings of a movie camera. The one he uses in the film is a particularly old one, probably similar to the ones in use when he started out in Fatty Arbuckle two-reelers in 1917. According to his biographers, Keaton knew the mechanics of cameras so thoroughly that he could take one apart and reassemble it like it was a gun. He also played with the camera lenses and with film exposure, the way Georges Méliès had done, creating in The Playhouse (1921) a film showing nine Busters in the same shot.

Somebody at MGM decided to pair Buster with a leading lady - Marceline Day - who was a thoroughly modern working girl and, problematic for Buster, taller than he. In all his great films, his leading ladies had been, or had appeared to be, shorter. This is far more pronounced in Spite Marriage, Keaton's next and last silent film, in which his leading lady (Dorothy Sebastian) practically mops the floor with him. In The Cameraman, Sally (Day) appears to be attracted to Buster because he is utterly incompetent - and adores her. She evidently feels sorry for him, which is insufficient grounds for her interest in him.

The scenes in the film that stand out are the ones in which Keaton is allowed to cut loose his physical self. On his first assignment, looking for a fire, he shoulders his camera and hitches a ride on a firetruck and we're given a remarkable shot of Buster from the truck itself - as it enters the station. Or when Buster and Sally board an omnibus that is so crowded that Buster is forced to run alongside it, eventually jumping onto the fender right beside Sally's window - only to be bumped off when the bus hits a pothole. Or when, living four flights up, he has to run at top speed downstairs to answer the telephone and, on making a date with Sally, dashes to her side across town so quickly she has hardly enough time to hang up the phone before he's standing beside her. (A cop [Harry Gribbon] watches Buster throughout these city street scenes, and thinks he's crazy.) The public swimming pool sequence is hilarious, especially the changing room scene, wherein Buster and a bigger man try to disrobe in a space about five feet square. The scene is funniest just for watching both men - even Buster - struggle to keep a straight face.

Then someone at MGM decided to introduce a monkey to the plot. Buster runs around a corner and collides with one of those Italian organ-grinders that exist only in movies, who falls onto his trained monkey and apparently crushes it. The organ grinder complains ("You killa da monk!") to a cop, and demands compensation. Buster grudgingly gives the man a handful of dimes. The cop tells Buster to dispose of the lifeless monkey. He wraps it in a handkerchief and walks around the corner. The monkey comes to, and takes an immediate liking to Buster. They become inseparable, alas, until the last scene.

Then comes the justly famous scene of Buster filming the Tong War. There is a spectacular fall when Buster mounts a tower to get a better angle for his camera, only to cause the tower to fall like a tree with him attached. When it is all over and Buster believes he's got some great newsreel footage, he finds an empty cartridge in the camera. A boat regatta follows in which Sally and Stagg, Buster's rival, are riding in a speedboat. Stagg crashes the boat, and Buster, who is on the beach filming, rows out to rescue her. When Buster deposits her, unconscious, on the beach and goes for first aid, Stagg finds her and takes credit for her rescue. They depart, and Buster returns to find Sally gone. Unfortunately, through all these scenes, Buster has to share the laughs with the monkey. When the monkey even cranks Buster's camera (just like he, presumably, did for the organ grinder), it made me wonder to which "cameraman" the title was referring.

Buster hands in a roll of exposed film after he quits and his boss takes a look at it just for laughs (Buster's first attempt at a newsreel looked more like something from Dziga Vertov's Man With a Movie-Camera). It turns out to be the footage of the Tong War that Buster thought was lost, along with enough footage of the regatta to reveal who really saved Sally. You see, the monkey switched the film cartridge after the Tong War and all the while Buster was saving Sally, the monkey was cranking the camera on the beach.

So Buster triumphs. He wins Sally back and he gets his job as an MGM newsreel cameraman. He's so excited, in the closing shot (sans monkey), he thinks the ticker-tape parade for Charles Lindbergh is for him. But the happy ending, though sweet, is compromised for me by the knowledge that Buster wouldn't have pulled any of it off without that damn monkey. Buster would later call his move to MGM "the worst mistake of my career." The Cameraman is a bittersweet, beautiful film, but not nearly the equal of Our Hospitality, Sherlock, Jr., The Navigator,The General, or Steamboat Bill, Jr.

(1) Arbuckle turned to directing films under an assumed name. Louise Brooks appeared in one of them, and told Kevin Brownlow: "He made no attempt to direct this picture. He sat in his chair like a man dead. He had been very nice and sweetly dead ever since the scandal that ruined his career. But it was such an amazing thing for me to come in to make this broken-down picture, and to find my director was the great Roscoe Arbuckle. Oh, I thought he was magnificent in films. He was a wonderful dancer—a wonderful ballroom dancer, in his heyday. It was like floating in the arms of a huge doughnut—really delightful."

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