Cast & Crew
Tintype photographer Buster falls in love with Sally, a secretary for the M-G-M Newsreel, and pawns his still camera in order to buy an antiquated movie camera. At Sally's urging, Buster photographs news events that may be of interest to M-G-M, but all of his attempts turn out badly. Sally tips Buster off about an impending tong war in Chinatown, and he covers all the dangerous action only to find that he had no film in his camera. The following day, Buster is filming a regatta and Sally falls overboard from the boat of Stagg, a cowardly M-G-M cameraman who deserts her to save himself. Buster rescues Sally and wins her undying love.
The Cameraman (1928) was the result of Buster Keaton's troubled first stint at MGM, which lasted from January 1928 to February 1933. Joseph Schenck, Keaton's producer up to that time, could no longer afford to produce films independently due both to poor box office returns on several expensive projects--not least among them Keaton's masterpiece, The General (1927)--and to the financial uncertainty and heavy costs associated with the industry's conversion to sound pictures. Schenck himself gave up producing films, focusing his energies instead on administering United Artists. He recommended that Keaton sign up with MGM, since his brother Nicholas Schenck had recently taken over as president of Loew's, MGM's parent company. Since MGM had previously distributed Battling Butler (1926)--Keaton's most lucrative film to date--the studio was eager to sign him on and offered him a salary of $3,000 a week, making him one of its highest-paid stars.
According to Keaton, his first proposal to Thalberg was a story in which Keaton would play the scrawny nephew of Marie Dressler, sent by her sister to protect her against Indians and other dangers during her train ride out West. Thalberg dismissed the concept as "a little frail." Instead the studio came up with the story of a newsreel cameraman, apparently conceived as a kind of flattery to William Randolph Hearst. Ultimately, the basic subject suited Keaton's temperament beautifully. For one, the film-related subject matter allowed Keaton to indulge his passion for the film medium, as one can see in his playful use of cinematic devices such as reverse motion and double exposure, recalling the virtuosic self-reflexivity of Sherlock, Jr. (1924). As film historian David Robinson points out, The Cameraman is in some ways a summation of Keaton's career up to that point. It includes allusions to several of his early films, including Coney Island (1917), an early short with Fatty Arbuckle, The Boat (1921) and Cops (1922).
Still, in retrospect, it is not entirely surprising that Keaton, the brilliant improviser, and MGM, the most conservative studio in Hollywood under the leadership of Irving Thalberg and Louis B. Mayer, would prove to be a difficult match. In his 1960 memoirs My Wonderful World of Slapstick Keaton characterizes the move as "the worst mistake of my career." To start with, he was separated from the talented collaborators on his previous projects: "When I went over to MGM I was again assured that every effort would be made to let me continue working with my team whenever possible. It turned out to be possible very seldom. I do not think that this was anyone's fault. Usually, when I needed the old gang, one of them would be busy on a Norma Shearer picture, another on a Lon Chaney picture, and so on."
Keaton also had less control over the story development process than before; by his account, some twenty-two writers worked on the script. Thalberg had his own ideas about how to make a successful story--according to Keaton: "Thalberg wanted me involved with gangsters, and get into trouble with this one and that one, and that was my fight--to eliminate those extra things." The studio also forbade him to perform the kinds of breathtaking--and dangerous--stunts that had added visceral excitement to his previous comedies. Lastly, Keaton felt that Thalberg appreciated slapstick comedy but didn't understand his creative methods, particularly the necessity of improvisation: "Slapstick comedy has a format, but it is hard to detect in its early stages unless you are one of those who can create it. The unexpected was our staple product, the unusual our object, and the unique was the ideal we were always hoping to achieve."
Nonetheless, thanks in part to unexpected difficulties encountered during the shoot in New York--among them being mobbed by crowds of adoring fans on the street--Keaton was able to convince Thalberg to let him depart from the script and include more improvisations. Some of the resulting gags--from his attempt to break a piggy bank that destroys his wall instead to his solo pantomime of all the roles in a baseball game at an eerily empty Yankee Stadium--are among the most inventive of his career. In his next film for MGM, Spite Marriage (1929), he would have even fewer opportunities for improvisation. MGM demanded a detailed shooting script and Keaton was not allowed to deviate from it to any significant degree, though the film still holds up well today. His relationship with the MGM studio heads deteriorated progressively and he fell prey to alcohol, but his films continued to be profitable through the conversion to sound.
The Cameraman was released in September 1928 to positive, if not necessarily exceptional, notices. A reviewer in Variety wrote: "The same old stencil about a boob that does everything wrong and cashes in finally through sheer accident. The familiar pattern has been dressed up with some bright gags and several sequences where the laughs come thick and fast. All in all, it will probably deliver general satisfaction." The film was, however, a great success, grossing $797,000--Keaton's highest returns to date. Keaton himself considered The Cameraman to be one of his best films, a judgment which many today would support.
Producer: Buster Keaton
Director: Edward Sedgwick
Script: Clyde Bruckman, Lew Lipton, Richard Shayer
Titles: Joe Farnham
Photography: Elgin Lessley and Reggie Lanning
Editor: Hugh Wynn
Technical Director: Fred Gabourie
Cast: Buster Keaton (Luke "Buster" Shannon), Marceline Day (Sally), Harold Gowin (Stagg), Sidney Bracey (the Boss), Harry Gribbon (the Cop), Edward Brophy (the Man in Dressing Room), Dick Alexander (the Big Sea Lion), Josephine the monkey.
by James Steffen
The Buster Keaton Collection
Considered by many cinema's greatest silent clown, Buster Keaton was a consummate practitioner of physical comedy whose career began in vaudeville at the age of three. Wearing trademark slapshoes and big baggy pants identical to his father's, most gags involved pratfalls with his father kicking him across the stage or tossing him into the air. Within a few years of his debut, Keaton was scoring rave reviews which applauded the physical comedy that would come to be so much a part of his film fame. "The dexterity or expertness with which Joe Keaton handles 'Buster' is almost beyond belief of studied 'business.' The boy accomplishes everything attempted naturally, taking a dive into the backdrop that almost any comedy acrobat of more mature years could watch with profit."
(Variety, March 12, 1910).
Keaton found tremendous eloquence in his deadpan style with alert and expressive eyes, lithe acrobat's body and an unforgettable air of grace described by critic James Agee as "a fine, still and dreamlike beauty." The films in this collection mark a peak in his popularity and glow with Keaton's unique and timeless style which combines very funny comedy with the ability to move an audience to tears.
"We are delighted to be collaborating once again with our partners at Turner Classic Movies to present another collection of silent rarities from the unparalleled Warner Bros. Pictures vaults," said George Feltenstein, WHV's Senior Vice President Classic Catalog. "As with last year's highly praised Lon Chaney Collection, this new Buster Keaton collection contains films which hold a very special place in cinema history, and we are proud to join with TCM to bring these crown jewels from the Warner library to DVD collectors everywhere."
Details of The Buster Keaton Collection Films
The Cameraman - After becoming infatuated with a pretty office worker, Keaton sets out to become a newsreel cameraman in order to be closer to his dream girl. Keaton's first film for MGM, made in 1928, is considered one of his funniest masterworks and offers up a feast of visual gags. The newly remastered DVD includes a new score by Arthur Barrow.
Spite Marriage - In this 1929 silent laugh-filled classic, Keaton stars as Elmer, a man madly in love with stage star Trilbey Drew. When Trilbey's boyfriend gets engaged to another woman, she marries Elmer in a desperate attempt to get even. This was Keaton's final silent comedy, and is presented here with its original Vitaphone music score.
Free and Easy - In Keaton's first talkie, he stars as an agent to beauty contest winner Elvira Plunkett. When Elvira decides to try her luck in Hollywood, Elmer goes along to help and the two soon find themselves falling in love. Chaos ensues when the couple must contend with Elvira's disapproving mother and a handsome movie star, who also has his sights set on the lovely Elvira. This 1930 classic is highlighted by guest appearances from a host of other MGM stars of the era including Robert Montgomery and Lionel Barrymore.
DVD Special Features Include:
- Legendary filmmaker Kevin Brownlow's all-new documentary So Funny It Hurt: Buster Keaton and MGM (produced especially for this DVD release). This unforgettable documentary chronicles the comedian's MGM period, and features fascinating, rare footage including archival interviews with the master himself
- Photo montages from the two silent films
- Cameraman commentary by Glenn Mitchell, author of A-Z of Silent Film Comedy: An Illustrated Companion
- Spite Marriage commentary by John Bengston, author of "Silent Echoes: Discovering Early Hollywood Through the Films of Buster Keaton and Jeffrey Vance, author of Buster Keaton Remembered"
The Buster Keaton Collection
The first film that Buster Keaton made with a prepared script.
On the studio's insistence, Keaton shot an ending with him smiling. It was previewed, and hated, so it was replaced with the ending the film now has.
Although only Hugh Wynn is credited onscreen as the film editor, other contemporary sources also credit Basil Wrangell. Modern Sources credit Frank Dugas as the film's Assistant Camera and include Richard Alexander, Ray Cooke and William Irving in the cast.