Welcome MGM blogathon readers! I am thrilled to see you here, and invite you to take a look around!
In 1928, the movie industry was changing. Not just from silence to sound–that much we all remember–but from increasingly from independent studios to big companies. These companies had the means and the know-how to churn out products that were bright, slick and full to the brim with mass appeal.
Such a bright, slick studio was MGM. In 1928, MGM was only four years old. But with blockbusters like Ben-Hur (1925) and Flesh and the Devil (1926) under its belt, enormous budgets and a roster of the biggest stars on the screen, this Superstudio was already the wealthiest one in Hollywoodland.
And 1928 was the year that Buster Keaton joined the lot. It actually wasn’t his idea–his producer Joe Schenck left him with little choice (for reasons most likely economical), although my guess is that he had the best intentions in mind.
One of the hardest-working, most devoted independent filmmakers in Hollywood, Keaton had been accustomed to involving himself in every aspect of his films. He had been a movie star and filmmaker since 1919, and before that had been a vaudeville star from the age of four. No doubt MGM felt lucky to add this multi-talented performer to their roster of stars, which at that time included the likes of Lon Chaney and Greta Garbo.
Keaton himself had a great deal of misgivings about the move. Schenck assured him that MGM wouldn’t be too big of a change–it would just offer even bigger budgets and top-notch production values. Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd shared Keaton’s misgivings. “There’ll be too many people involved,” they warned him. “They’ll warp your judgment.” But Schenck had told Keaton he was to be an MGM star, and an MGM star he became.
The first film that resulted from this new arrangement was the comedy The Cameraman (1928). This was the only MGM film where Keaton was still able to be a filmmaker of sorts. He was able to bring a few people from his old crew on board, such as Eddie Cline, Elgin Lessley and the talented Clyde Bruckman. It’s the only one of Keaton’s MGM films that the most clearly shows his creative stamp, with the added polish of MGM production values. And it is one of Keaton’s masterpieces.
The story is of a humble tintype photographer (an out-of-date profession even in the late ’20s) who falls in love with a young woman who works in a newsreel office. Hoping to win her love, he aspires to be a newsreel cameraman himself. Although his attempts at his new career are bumbling, his determined little character doesn’t give up, and…well, here’s the part where I tell you that you need to see this film.
The talented Marceline Day plays the love interest Sally. Day, whose sister Alice was also an actress, started as a Mack Sennett Bathing Beauty in the early ’20s, appearing in films with stars such as Harry Langdon, and became a star herself by the mid-’20s. One of her films just happens to be the much sought-after lost film London After Midnight.
Keaton’s charming leading ladies in his silent films are sometimes (rather rashly) dismissed as being not three-dimensional enough, or lamented for being used as “breathing props.” This is perhaps less fair to the leading ladies and more indicative of when a writer has been reading about Keaton’s later troubles with his first wife (hindsight can sure color an essay). Day’s character in The Cameraman being fully three-dimensional and sympathetic is usually ascribed to being “MGM’s doing.” Well…perhaps, but Keaton’s chemistry with his co-star is so effortless that he certainly must’ve approved.
Keaton’s character is not only a culmination of all of his loyal and determined “little fellows” of the past, but is perhaps the finest example of his strengths as an actor. He allows himself a bit more emotion this time, while retaining his signature underplaying. Perhaps no other actor could play a character with that same type of sweetness, vulnerability, and masculinity. You root for his character completely. His charisma is undeniable; the screen is his.
The film itself is a joy. There’s no end to the inspired moments, from Keaton’s shy attempts to capture Sally’s attention, to the bewilderment of a policeman who constantly sees him at the oddest moments, to the classic scene in the tiny changing room. It’s a film that’s not only very funny, but knows how to tell a relatively simple story exceedingly well.
It is also, quite arguably, one of the best of all onscreen romances. An interesting fact–I had seen the film several times before one day I realized that there was no kiss. Sally’s peck on Keaton’s cheek is as close as we get. And yet…it doesn’t matter in the least, does it? True romance, after all, is something more than just physical expressions of it.
For the Keaton fan, it can be exciting to see what he could do within large-budget MGM settings. The opening shots, showing newsreel cameramen in action on battlefields and other dangerous locations, set the standard (although the rest of the film is smaller in scale). There are impressive crane shots, such as the ones where Keaton races up and down several flights of stairs or tries to film on a collapsing platform. There is a large and elaborate Tong War. Even the lighting in many scenes is excellently done, an advantage for Keaton’s elegant features and Day’s beauty.
The Cameraman is usually cited as having more sentiment or pathos (a favorite word among writers) than the rest of Keaton’s oeuvre. “Everyone knows that Keaton was a cynic–this was MGM’s doing!” writers say, and others nod in solemn agreement. But I’ll say that I’ve never agreed that Keaton’s silent films are all that “dour” or “sour” (or whatever the rhyme) to begin with. Certainly there’s some dark humor, like in much of silent comedy, but it tends to be done with done with a kind of glee. Keaton’s sweet and, yes, even sentimental moments can get overlooked, probably because he didn’t like to milk them. Because, you know, that was sappy.
MGM considered The Cameraman to be a perfect comedy, and would use it as a “training film” for new writers until their print wore out–no kidding. It’s also special because it represents a relatively happy time in Keaton’s career at MGM. Ahead would come unease and frustration. Writers, writers’ conferences, scripts, script conferences, production deadlines, producer’s demands, business demands, people, people, people–the marks of a big film corporation–would gradually form the bars of the cage he paced around in. The MGM way was how everything would be done–and for Keaton, it seemed that nothing got done, at least not with that rare mixture of freewheeling improvisation and tight efficiency that he was used to.
We all love MGM for all the good it’s given us–incomparable stars, classic musicals and grand epics. We can also, in fairness, recognize that some stars struggled there, particularly those who were more suited to smaller studios to begin with. Keaton was one of those stars.
But for a time Keaton’s stay at MGM had its honeymoon period, and happily for all of us it resulted in one of cinema’s greatest comedies.
Trivia: At about two minutes into the film, at the part where a crowd suddenly converges on the area where Keaton is trying to ply his tintype trade, look closely at Keaton’s face. Do you see it?