MGM Blogathon: On Buster Keaton’s “The Cameraman” (1928)

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.

MGM buster etc.

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The story is of a humble tintype photographer (an out-of-date profession even in the late ’20s) who falls in love with a young woman who works in a newsreel office.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.

Marceline Day tennis racket

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.

Buster Marceline cameraman

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?

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37 thoughts on “MGM Blogathon: On Buster Keaton’s “The Cameraman” (1928)

  1. Whilst this is a wonderful film, part of me dislikes watching it, just because it marks the beginning of Keaton’s decline – not in his artistry, but as a result of the studio. That said, this is a wonderful showcase for his acting (the scene where Sally rejects him gets me every time!)

    • For me, Spite Marriage is the film that I can’t quite love–for the same reasons. Ohhh yes, that wonderful beach scene. The scene where Sally kisses his cheek in the rain is touching too. For just a second, as he looks around in a stunned daze he appears to be looking straight at the camera, at us. But just for the briefest second, if it’s even there.

      • I love that moment, too–I think his dazed walk in the rain is one of the most romantic sequences in the movies, so beautifully cinematic.

    • What a fantastic experience–you are envied!! The Cameraman would be a great film for a theater to host around Valentine’s Day, I’ve always thought.

      • It will be shown on Valentine’s Day 2015 in Chicago by the Silent Film Society of Chicago. I found your comment in researching my pre-show lecture for the film. You ….Are…INVITED!

  2. It is a shame that Keaton, as well as many others (Erich von Stroheim, John Gilbert, Ann Dvorak, Helen Twelvetrees, Louise Brooks, just to name a few) had a decline after such a great early part of their collective careers. We will always have films like Sherlock, Jr. and The General and Our Hospitality and The Navigator (an underrated Keaton, if ever there was one) and, of course, The Cameraman. Great look at a great film. See ya ’round the web.

    • Thanks for stopping by Kevyn! 🙂 Oh yes, The Navigator–who was is that said, “The Navigator and The General and The Gold Rush and City Lights, those are the great comedies, aren’t they?” Or something along those lines.

  3. I echo what everyone else has written in their comments. Lea, you write the words and have the thoughts about The Cameraman that I do. It is the loveliest, exciting, sweet (but not too too…) film I’ve ever seen. And I cry every time I see Buster running back to the beach with some remedies and sees Sally walking off with…is it Harold Goodwin? Don’t feel like looking it up! Anyway, if anyone thinks Buster is a stone face, all they have to do is watch that scene where he sinks down into the sand, heartbroken. His body language shows more in that scene than a hundred words from a “talkie.” A wonderful, wonderful actor and a tremendous movie maker. Just the best. Thanks for this article. I loved it.

  4. I dislike when writers generalize about Keaton’s leading ladies. In the otherwise excellent “Classics of the Silent Screen,” Joe Franklin says all of his leading ladies were dumb, but I disagree. Some were dimwitted (and others like Mary in “College” or Trilby in “Spite Marriage” were downright mean), but others like Kathryn McGuire or Marion Mack become his comic partners later in the film. Marceline Day is probably the most worthy of the hero’s attentions out of all Keaton’s films though.

    • I agree–this generalization seems to happen because writers are trying to uphold this idea of Keaton being “cynical” or “pessimistic.” Or, like I mentioned in this post, it’s because they’ve been reading about his first marriage. Besides, many of his leading ladies seemed either typical of the period or something more–like his films with Sybil Seely where they are clearly equal partners. Sally O’Neil played quite the spunky leading lady, too!

  5. Let’s not forget Buster’s awesome chemistry with Josephine the monkey, either! I do think this film has some of the most awe-inspiring epic sequences of BK’s career, notably the Tong War sequence. And the scene in the pool has to be one of the funniest things ever put on film. I do think at times BK acts a bit stalker-ish, like in the scene when he just says he’ll sit and wait for Sally to get off work, but that’s really the only thing that bothers me about the movie occasionally. All in all, it is one of my favorites, too, and it makes me sad to see how much creativity and innovation he still had in him that got stifled by MGM.

  6. It’s been said “The Cameraman,” unlike his previous independent features was 90% Keaton. Some scenes that seem glaringly out of place, not funny and “made to follow MGM Assembly-Line” policy were, for example him sitting on the fender of the automobile in the rain. One of the most poetic scenes in the film, where he “played baseball with himself” was almost, by MGM’s Weingarten (what was called “The Supervising Producer” – as if Keaton needed one). Keaton fought long and hard to keep that in. Similarly, in “Spite Marriage” Weingarten wanted to cut the scene of the drunk girl going limp in the bedroom despite Keaton’s character trying to prop her up. At this time (1928 and after the struggle of “The Cameraman”) he barely had the energy to fight “the system.” (The reviews all singled out that ‘wanting to be cut by the supervising-producer’ scene as the best in the film). I consider “The Cameraman” Keaton’s last film. The following year’s “Spite Marriage” with the very last that had any Keaton input.

    • Me and many other fans are certainly with you about “The Cameraman”–it is, in a way, Buster’s last true film. I would say that “Doughboys” certainly seems to be drawing on a lot of Buster’s war experiences, although the film itself doesn’t have his directorial touch. Thanks for your thoughts.

  7. Have not seen this on the big screen with an audience, as I have most of Buster’s silent features, but at this juncture prefer “Spite Marriage”, which, granted, is a much less ambitious piece of filmmaking. With the proviso that a big screen viewing could change my mind, I have a very difficult time with any Keaton vehicle that attempts to make him pathetic and/or something of a dork (“Elmer” in some of the later films), and IMO, one starts seeing the beginnings of that in “The Camerman”. Buster may be a tad absent-minded in “The General”, but is extremely resourceful.

    • Seeing a film with an audience and the perspective of what happened to him might grant some sympathy that translates to laughter that otherwise wouldn’t happen. And agree the absentmindedness that starts to show itself in The Cameraman was the start of MGM’s “Elmer” character. In hindsight, it was more a noble things of Keaton to, for more or less rebel (and ultimately get fired and ruin his cash-flow and film career) than continue on as a buffoon paired with Jimmy, Durante, etc. A somewhat similar career arc occurred with Harry Langdon in 1928 and as tragic as Keaton’s.

      • Ah, I might actually have to disagree a bit about seeing too much of the Elmer character in The Cameraman. I see him as being a continuation of the sort of character Buster played in College and especially Steamboat Bill Jr.–a sweet, inexperienced young man who has to prove himself. There are seeds of this character as far back as The Saphead. In my opinion MGM took a look at The Cameraman, said “Oh yeah, we totally see what you’re doing here, we got this,” and in subsequent films tried to imitate what Buster did but ended up turning the character into the Elmer dork (as Buster himself stated, “you warped my character”). Thus, I consider The Cameraman to be his last great silent film (although Spite Marriage wasn’t a bad follow-up).

        • The difference between “Steamboat Bill Junior: and “College” (and also “The Navigator”) are that the characters in the aforementioned are from privileged classes. In “The Cameraman” Buster is undeniably from a working-class background. At that time (1928) tin-types were an anachronism – the equipment cheap to buy with a few itinerants still on the streets ploying the trade. I would recommend trying Harry Langdon if you are not overly-familiar. He, unlike in my humble opinion, is the only equal of Keaton’s – Chaplin and Lloyd not even close. Langdon’s tragic “Three’s a Crowd” one of the greatest flawed movies ever made – similar to “The Magnificent Amberson’s” as far as the category of “what could have been.”

        • Well, I’d say that in The Navigator (and Battling Butler!) Buster’s character is unquestionably from a higher class–but maybe not so much in College and Steamboat Bill. It’s more the traits of his character in The Cameraman that I see as being more Buster-ish than MGM-ish (if that makes any sense!) Oh yes, I love the Little Elf! I have a bio of him in my Some Biographies page, and plan on writing lots more about him in the future. He truly was a unique genius.

        • Right – certainly in Steamboat Bill Jr his background was less than from an upper class since his father was a lowly-boat-proprietor. Buster, with his college garb was funny – something he (the character seemed to have adapted being away from home. And, re “The Little Elf” – I own that one bio of him with that title. I like him maybe more than Keaton because the arc of his fall is (not that that is a prerequisite for liking someone from Hollywood) even more tragic as you know. Something about the “would have in a perfect world” dynamic resonates. Same with the story of “The Magnificent Ambersons” – I love it almost as much for what it would have been had the producer not cut half the footage and had Robert Wise shoot a Hollywood ending when Welles was out of the country. Add to that the deliberate destruction of the original cut footage. Well, at least Welles original shooting script still exists. Anyway… not to get too off on a tangent here…

  8. 1.) I agree: Buster always has sweetness in his films, I never see him as a dour cynic. These writers! Ha, “pathos, a word writers like to use”, hahahahaha…..
    2.) I also agree about his leading ladies! I love his chemistry with all of his leading ladies! I love them all! They all leap off the screen and have life! (not to compare, but I prefer them to Chaplin’s leading ladies!)
    3.) I too consider this his “last film”….and I love that he goes out taking in cheering crowds!! A perfect way to cap off an amazing body of work! Viva Buster!!

    • “Goes out taking in cheering crowds”…nice observation! And yes, Buster’s work isn’t at all cynical to me–not even close. His short films especially are so full of fun, and you really get the sense of the camaraderie and “big happy family” atmosphere at his studio.

  9. I only got into silent films and especially Buster Keaton over the last 6 months or so. After all I had read, I was pleasantly surprised that The Cameraman is a masterpiece (I even prefer it over some of his earlier full length films). Spite Marriage is also good, but not in the same league (it was part of the DVD set I just bought).

    • Hi Jason! The Cameraman is just wonderful, and I agree that Spite Marriage (while good) isn’t quite in the same league. Glad to hear you’re a new Buster convert, he’s the gift that keeps on giving!

  10. This is one of my favorites. I think it would be a great one to show a newbie to silent film! And to answer your question, YES! I see it, and it is beautiful!

  11. I just discovered Silent-ology and I’m having a blast reading through the articles – I love your thoughtful (but playful) writing style, and the way you challenge notions that I’ve borrowed without thinking from other silent biographers. (For example, I’ve never taken any interest in seeing ‘Spite Marriage’ or ‘Three’s A Crowd,’ but now I have to give ’em a try!) And man, it’s great to finally learn more about faces I keep running across in my viewing but know nothing about (like Sybil Seeley, Charlie Bowers, and Louise Fazenda).
    The Cameraman is one of my favorites – the gags are funny, the production is beautiful, and the story is both. And oh, those crane shots – impressive, sure, but more important, they accent the gags instead of distracting from them!
    Then there’s my favorite line: “Now look – you kill-a de monk!” Something about the weirdness of that situation/dialogue cracks me up every time!

    • Hi Jonny, thanks so much for reading!! “Labor of love” hardly begins to describe it. And there’s so much to write about, too–often it feels like I’m just scratching the surface. Feel free to browse around!

      “You kill-a de monk” is hilarious, and like you I’m not even sure why. 😀

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