September 20, 2016
Cameraman, The – US, 1928
Buster Keaton’s 1928 film The Cameraman begins by paying homage to cameramen who run toward danger. Keaton’s character, Buster, is not one of those cameramen. In fact, he’s only likely to get close to something perilous if it approaches him. That is, of course, until a young lady comes into his life and convinces him that things need to change. For Buster Keaton, such a situation was nothing new, yet there is a sweetness to The Cameraman that makes it feel fresh and vibrant, and it is now one of my favorite of Keaton’s films.
In the film, Buster walks around with a camera on a tripod asking people if they want to take a tintype, a photograph made on a thin tin plate. In the film’s opening scene, an attempt to take a man’s photo is interrupted by a mob of onlookers and professional photographers, all rushing to get a glimpse of what looks like a politician. In the crowd, Buster finds himself touching shoulders with a young woman whom he literally can’t take his eyes off. Eventually, he takes her picture, and after she is whisked away by a co-worker, he decides to search for her and give her the snapshot. This begins a rather charming courtship and a mad-dash push for a job as a “real” cameraman. Both of these story lines are hilarious and involving.
One of the truly wonderful things about the film is that it devotes a great deal of time to establishing a rapport between Buster and his muse, Sally, played by Marceline Day. Sally is moved by Buster’s decency and positivity and eventually the two of them go on a date together. It starts out as a walk, turns into a jaunt at a swimming pool, and ends with a tender kiss on the cheek. You can literally watch them developing a mutual interest, and by the end of this part of the film, I was genuinely rooting for them.
Like many other slapstick films from the Silent Era, Keaton’s films were often structured around a series of physical gags, and during such comic moments, the plot would essentially grind to a halt. Here, such moments are present, but in a much truncated form, something I have been critical of in later Laurel and Hardy films. Here, however, it is the right approach. A scene in which Buster and another man are both trying to change into bathing suits in a very tight changing room is short but complete, and at just the right moment, the film cuts to outside the changing rooms, where we see Buster standing in a bathing suit that is clearly not his. A scene in which he tries to break a coin box is similarly short. We see a few attempts to open it, each that end in destruction to his surroundings, and then just as the audience is settling in a for a much longer slapstick bit, Buster throws the box and it shatters. Done, and hilariously accomplished.
The heart of the film is of course Keaton, and here he is at his optimistic and good-hearted best. Buster thinks that there’s nothing he can’t do, provided that he receives the opportunity to prove himself, and Keaton embodies these sentiments. I have seen most if not all of Keaton’s silent films, and I think it’s safe to say that silent comedy was his forte. Few actors – and not just those from the silent period - could do what Keaton did with just his face alone. He had the unique ability of being able to completely convey the reception of a message and its emotional impact on him. His eyes could express both love and sadness, and soon his entire body would join in the expression of his feelings. As a result, his characters earned not only the audience’s empathy but also their backing. Matching him in his endeavors is Day. Her role is tricky, requiring her to reflect both Sally’s support of Buster and her growing awareness of his shortcomings. There are moments in the film when Sally looks at him with such confidence in her eyes that we fully understand why that brief glance would fill Buster with such drive to persevere. Keaton and Day indeed made a great comedy team, and it is a shame that The Cameraman was their only film together.
The Cameraman is engaging, well-paced, and very often side-splittingly hilarious. It is a film that is well-worth seeking out. (on DVD and part of TCM Archive’s Buster Keaton Collection)