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THE CAMERAMAN (1928)

The Cameraman - CoverThe Criterion Collection’ have recently released a digitally enhanced version of ‘The Cameraman’. It was directed by Edward Sedgwick; it starred Buster Keaton, Marceline Day, Harold Goodwin, and Harry Gribbon; and it lasts for 69-minutes. Plus, as an extra added bonus, the Blu-ray edition comes with audio commentary narrated by the film historian, Glenn Mitchell, an interview with the film critic, James L. Neibaur, two documentaries about Buster, one documentary about the evolution of the video-camera, as well as the restored 1929 version of 'Spite Marriage', which was Keaton’s next feature for ‘MGM’. Please enjoy.


The Cameraman (The Criterion Collection)


THE STORY:
What would you do for love? Seriously, what would you be willing to do in the name of true love? I mean, would you quickly change your current occupation? Would you hang on to the side of a moving bus? Or would you be willing to get soaking wet while sitting in the back of a roofless car? After all, that’s what I had to do, Buster Luke Shannon (Buster Keaton), when I became enamored with a beautiful young lady called Sally Richards (Marceline Day).

You see, I was a struggling photographer at the time, trying to earn a quick buck by taking pictures of passersby on the street. When suddenly, lo and behold, Sally caught my eye, and immediately, I did everything I could to get her attention. Well, not only did I swap my picture-camera for a video-camera so I could gain employment at her place of work, 'MGM Newsreels', but in addition to this, I also tried to impress her by working to the best of my ability.

Not that it did me any good, mind you, because every time I tried to shoot some footage I always ended up falling flat on my ass. Ass, or face, whichever came first. But then again, that’s most probably why what next transpires goes, Slap-Pow-Bang!, when I finally discover that the path to true love never runs smoothly. As a blind-date sinks quicker than a boat with no oar - a rival love interest seems rotten to the core - a cameraman suddenly gets involved with a turbulent gang war - and at the end of the day, please remember, you should never ignore a monkey who dances like a drunk whore.




THE REVIEW:
According to Buster Keaton, the first thing he did when he entered the ‘film industry’ was to dismantle and reassemble a fully-working ‘video-camera’. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have been able to understand the mechanics behind the ‘moving image’ and become one of the most prolific performers of his generation. However, all of that started to change in 1928 -- or to be more specific about it, January the 26th, 1928 -- when Buster signed a contract with 'MGM' for the provisional sum of $3,000 per week (roughly $42,500 in today’s money... 2020) in order to make two feature-length films for them, every year for at least two years. The only problem with this, though, is that Buster was solely hired as a ‘named actor’ and nothing else. Not as a director, or a stuntman, or any of the other roles he used to embrace during his early years in the industry. Therefore, he didn’t have the same amount of control over his work or the ability to maintain the high standards he previously set himself.

The Cameraman - Buster Keaton and Marceline Day (catch a bus)
Later on in his life, Keaton would call this deal, "the worst mistake he’s ever made", but if truth be told, he didn’t always think this way due to the surprise success of his first film for 'MGM'. Namely, this film, which gradually evolved in a rather unusual fashion, unlike any of the others that followed it.

Well, on the first day of shooting, Buster arrived on to the set, completely unaware of his ‘reduced status’. So like before, he began to work with the rest of the cast until he was approached by the director, Edward Sedgwick, who kindly told him about his ‘revised role’. 'I'm afraid the bosses have hired me to direct this picture’, said Sedgwick, ‘so from now on, my friend, I’m calling the shots here. Not you’. Or so he thought, because in no time at all, Sedgwick couldn't get the set-ups he wanted or the actors to understand his direction. So, to cut a long story short, Snip!, he eventually relinquished his ‘authority’ to Buster who then unofficially directed this film on his behalf, in a manner of speaking, and the rest, as they say, is history. Film history.

After all, ‘The Cameraman’ is a classic slice of vintage cinema as it features a large variety of impressive gags, jokes, and routines. For a start, it presents us with a healthy dose of visual humor, which usually involved Buster falling down, getting hit, or performing some type of death-defying stunt (Think Jackie Chan without the martial arts). Then there’s the unsurprising amount of story-based humor it has on offer. Or if you prefer, character-based humor, which either helped to establish a person's personality, set-up a plot-point, or comment on the time this story takes place (ranging from gender-specific boarding houses all the way to primitive technology). And finally, there’s colloquial humor. Not spoken humor, of course, because this film is still a silent film (aside from its orchestral accompaniment). But rather, colloquial, in regards to the phrases people used (soup to nuts) and the way people behaved (take off your hat) whenever they’re interacting with different types of individuals, such as the cop on the street (Slap!), or the woman trying to be courteous and kind (Kiss!).


The Cameraman - Buster Keaton and Harry Gribbon (crowd)


Now when it comes down to the overall construction of this film, and more or less, I’d say the story was fairly simple to follow (boy loves girl), the structure was fairly loose by design (some of the sequences weren’t essential to the plot), and generally speaking, the all-round aesthetic was fairly primitive to look at. But then again, this film was made in 1928 (just under one hundred years ago), so to some extent, we’re lucky we can see anything at all, considering it was lost for many, many years, until a master copy was discovered in Paris, circa 1968, along with an edited version in 1991 (which was better in terms of quality). So, in retrospect, I can’t really complain about the style or the substance of this silent classic. If anything, all I can really do is be thankful that it’s still around for everyone to watch. Touch wood. Fingers crossed.

The Cameraman - Buster Keaton and Harry Gribbon (police van)
Actually, while I’m in the mood to spill some titillating trivia, why don’t we all now sit back, relax, and check out the following filmic facts: (1) ‘MGM’ first released this production in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on the exact same day the Argentinian oil industry was nationalized. It was on the 10th of September, 1928. (2) This was the first American comedy that utilized an elevator crane to shoot an entire scene. It was the scene where Buster runs up and down the stairs of his rooming house because he's expecting to receive a telephone call from Sally. (3) One of the taglines used to promote this picture, states, ‘Buster has a camera, but what he doesn't know about it would make even the little birdie laugh!’. (4) This movie was shot inside ‘Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios’, located in Culver City, California, as well as on location throughout the surrounding areas and certain sections of New York City. In California, you might notice Hollywood Boulevard, Vine Street, the 'Balboa Pavilion', Newport Beach, and the 'Venice Municipal Plunge', whereas in New York City, numerous scenes were shot in and around 'Yankee Stadium', select parts of Manhattan, as well as East 37th Street & Madison Avenue. (5) In 1950, parts of this picture helped to inspire the creation of the Red Skelton comedy, ‘Watch the Birdie’, which Keaton worked on as a gagman. (6) ‘MGM’ studio executives originally insisted that this romantic comedy would end with a shot of Buster Keaton smiling. But then, when this sequence was eventually shot and previewed in theatres, the audiences hated it, and so it was quickly discarded. (7) At either end of this movie, we're presented with actual newsreel footage of two major celebrity events held in New York City. The first piece of footage can be dated to 1926 and includes an appearance from the first woman to swim across the English Channel, Gertrude Ederle, whereas the second piece of footage can be dated to 1927 and includes the first person to fly across the Atlantic solo, Charles Lindbergh. 


The Cameraman - Buster Keaton and Marceline Day (the lovers)


In closing my review of ‘The Cameraman’, I would like to say nothing. Absolutely nothing. Nothing about my respect for Buster Keaton’s cinematic artistry. Nothing about my passion for silent films. And nothing about my fascination for history in all of its forms. Or else, you might think I'm biased, which I am (just a bit), although I’m pretty sure you’ve guessed that fact already.

The Cameraman - Buster Keaton and Josephine the monkey
What I will say, though, is that the experience of watching this film is very much like taking a nice, leisurely stroll through time because the story was very, very old and very, very formulaic, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it's not very, very fun to watch. After all, it does feature different styles of visual humor and allows us to see what life was like in the late 1920s. What’s more, we're also allowed to see a group of actors honing their chosen craft during an era where screen acting was in its infancy, be it Buster Keaton trying to convey his feelings in a somewhat stoic fashion, or be it Marceline Day trying to maintain her composure while two men were vying for her affections.

Either way, this film is amazing, and I would highly recommend it if you’re a fan of Buster, old fashioned romances, madcap hijinks, as well as some of the other actors included in the cast. Actors such as, Harold Goodwin (who played Harold Stagg, the rival love interest), Sidney Bracey (who played Edward J. Blake, the hard-faced editor), Harry Gribbon (who played Officer Hennessy, the bumbling beat-cop), or Josephine (who played the monkey, the very cheeky monkey, that almost stole the show, ha!).

THE RATING: A-

THE CAMERAMAN (1928) THE CAMERAMAN (1928) Reviewed by David Andrews on July 20, 2020 Rating: 5

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