This post is part of the Sixth Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon hosted by Silent-ology. You can find other great blog posts from this year’s blogathon celebrating Buster Keaton’s career here.
There is a well-known story among Damfinoes that after Buster Keaton film’s debut in the Arbuckle vehicle The Butcher Boy (1917), he asked to take home a movie camera with him off the set. Buster took it apart and put it back together again to learn how it worked. It is said that this experience and his curiosity with the camera as a machine is what motivated Buster to give up his life as a vaudeville star and to devote himself full time to the movies.
Whether this one experience was truly the impetus for Buster Keaton’s commitment to the art form of cinema or not, there is no doubt of the comedic and directorial genius he cultivated and showed off during his career, particularly in his silent films. It is fitting that his penultimate silent comedy, The Cameraman released in 1928, is centered around the life of a young, aspiring cameraman.
As the name suggests, cameras dominate the frame from beginning to end alongside Buster’s unique and energetic style. A camera almost seems like an extension of Buster. When the film spends nearly twenty minutes in the second act following Buster on a date with his love interest Sally, it seems a bit strange for Buster to not have a camera in tow. While this part of the film features some great physical comedy at the local pool, it definitely loses some of the dramatic tension built in the first act. The film is at its best when it is a love story between Buster and his camera.
Ahhhh… do you use Ocean Breeze shampoo?
The film begins with an homage to the News Reel Cameraman, showing brave cameramen risking life and limb photographing in World War I trenches, on the wings of a soaring airplane, and on the top of a city skyscraper. It cuts to ‘the other type of photographer’ as Buster is trying to take a cheap tin-type portrait of a man on the street. Before he can get his shot, confetti starts falling and a crowd assembles as the real cameramen rush onto the scene following a political rally. In the midst of the confusion, he is squished up against a girl that catches his eye and his nose. He is left alone with the girl after the crowd subsides and takes her portrait. Before he is able to give her the tintype, she is dragged off by one of the newsreel cameramen when Buster’s back is turned.
The next day, Buster travels to the MGM Newsreel office to give his new love interest her portrait, free of charge. While waiting for her to get off work, he finds another love as he examines intently a state of the art newsreel camera. He is so enamored with both the girl, named Sally, and the camera that he promptly asks for a job in the newsroom. After being laughed at by the newsreel cameraman Harold, who also has his eye on the same woman, Sally encourages Buster to get a camera to shoot some test footage for the boss. They’ll purchase any good film for their newsreel after all.
Love at first sight, Round 2
The stage has been set for the rest of the film. Buster is trying to get the girl and the job. As the film’s leading lady, Marceline Day is more the object of his desire and the straight woman to Buster’s hijinks than a comedy equal. Throughout most of the film, she is overshadowed by the operations of the camera, even if she is inextricably connected to Buster’s dreams of being a cameraman and ends up playing a huge part in his success.
What she lacks in comedy, she makes up for in support. Sally encourages Buster throughout the film to try after failure, teaching him some tricks of the trade and never valuing him less for been a novice at the camera. She very much clearly prefers Buster over the more established newsreel cameraman Harold. I wonder why Buster feels like he needs to make it as a cameraman to win Sally’s affection. With that being said, if there was ever anything I’ve learned throughout Buster Keaton’s filmography from his shorts to Steamboat Bill Jr., an awkward man that doesn’t measure up to society’s strict view of masculinity can always succeed once he overcomes his insecurities and believes in himself on his own terms. It probably doesn’t help his ego or confidence that a typically strong and successful man is trying to win the same girl he has a strong liking for.
Buster’s first attempt to prove himself as a competent cameraman doesn’t go as he imagined it to. After failing to find a nearby fire to photograph, he ends up at an empty Yankee Stadium, unaware that the team’s game that day was in St. Louis. Even though there was nothing to photograph at the stadium, Buster made sure his trip to the home of the Yankees was well worth it. Buster shows off his great agility and comedic timing as he enacts a baseball game entirely by himself, hitting home runs and striking out batters.
Why is this guy trying to make it work behind the camera? He clearly belongs in front of one!
After he successfully hits a home run to close out his one-man baseball game, he isn’t so lucky when he screens his footage for the newsreel boss. We as the audience are shown four short scenes from Buster’s first test footage. The newsreel cameramen and boss laugh in derision at Buster’s accidental double exposures and warped footage. Buster’s character’s failure as a cameraman in the film allows for Buster as the director to shine and lets us ask the question: what if Buster had joined with Rene Clair and Walter Ruttman and became an avant-garde silent filmmaker?
The first shot looks strangely like a modern-day boomerang, with a diver jumping off of their board only for the film to stop midway in their dive and reverse, leaving the diver back where they were at the beginning of the clip. I don’t know how you would manage to make that mistake on accident as a novice cameraman but it looks cool nonetheless. The second shot is a double exposure of a woman walking across a city street superimposed by a battleship at sea, making it look like the woman and the cars around her are submerged in the ocean. The final two scenes are shots of traffic as usual on city streets poorly exposed, making it look like cars and people are disappearing as they cross mid-screen.
Newsreel Footage, a short experimental film by our novice cameraman Buster
The style of these four shots would look familiar to anyone aware of the experimental and avant-garde film community in the 1920s. I’m not sure if Buster knew of this specific niche in the film industry during the 20s but based on this scene, he must have at least seen some experimental films of the time period. The dreamlike reverse footage of a diver jumping back to their board mid-dive manipulates the human body’s motion much like Rene Clair’s slow-motion shots in Entr’acte (1924). The sped-up shots of city life would sit beautifully next to city symphony films such as Berlin: Symphony of a City (1927) or Man with a Movie Camera (1929) and closely mirror the rhythmic beauty of machines in motion in Ballet Mecanique (1924).
While many silent comedians incorporated surrealist material in their films such as the not-as-well-known-as-he-should-be Charley Bowers, Buster was always able to insert it into his films without shattering the audience’s suspension of disbelief in the film’s reality. Sometimes it would be in a seemingly simple throwaway joke, such as the ever-growing newspaper he opens furiously at the beginning of The High Sign. Other times Buster would structure an extended story in an exciting alternate reality like his shorts The Playhouse and Convict 13 or Sherlock Jr‘s dream sequence. In The Cameraman, he grounds this simple yet impressive dreamlike short scene in his character’s inexperience with the medium of film, showing off his own mastery of story and editing.
The first dolly shot
Unfortunately, the boss of the MGM newsreel department didn’t recognize Buster’s accidental genius and knack for abstract filmmaking. Not all is lost for Buster though. After a Sunday spent on the town with Sally, Buster is out shooting film again, this time of a local gang war that Sally pointed him towards before the other cameramen found out. Buster finally gets the chance to live up to the heroics displayed by real newsreel cameraman in the opening of the film. Standing directly in the line of fire, with the help of a monkey he picks up off the street, he sticks his neck on the line and captures the only footage of the bloody Tong war. Maybe it was the adrenaline of a life or death situation or the newfound confidence after his date with Sally but Buster seems to finally have captured the perfect footage to prove his worth.
Unfortunately, he must have had too much adrenaline in him. After getting back to the newsreel office, he finds out that there was no film in the camera the whole time! Sally gets chewed out by her boss for keeping the news of the impending gang war from his real cameramen. Buster tries to make amends by promising to never come near the newsreel office, and Sally, for good. Buster’s pledge doesn’t seem to please either party involved, except for that jerk Harold of course!
Sally feeling down
Buster might have promised to leave Sally alone but he never promised to leave his camera! The next day he is out by the yacht club filming the lake with his new friend the monkey. As he goes to load the camera, he notices a film reel amongst his belongings. It was the footage he photographed of the war yesterday! It turns out the monkey had taken it out when Buster wasn’t looking. He hurriedly paddles to shore in excitement but not in a big enough rush to head back to the newsroom to miss out on a cool shot. Buster sets up his camera to shoot a yacht speeding past him which, unbeknownst to him, carries Sally and Harold.
Both Sally and Harold are thrown off into the water as the yacht speeds aimlessly in circles around them. Buster dashes in after Sally as his rival swims himself safely to shore. Unconscious, Sally is dragged by Buster onto the shore when he runs to get help from the nearby drugstore. With Buster gone, Harold goes to Sally’s side as she wakes up, taking credit for saving her life like any smirk, burly antagonist would! Buster runs out of the nearby drugstore to see Sally walk off with the other cameraman. The camera pulls back for us the audience, revealing the monkey cranking Buster’s camera as Buster dejectedly sinks into the sand in defeat.
Annnnnnd…CUT! That’s a wrap!
This seems like the end of the rope for Buster. We cut to him standing on the sidewalk with his old tintype camera next to him and his newsreel camera behind him in the pawnshop window and firmly in his past. He has lost his first love and now has given up his second love. He wasn’t cut out to be a cameraman, let alone manly enough to make it work with a girl of his dreams! True to his character, he still is decent enough to drop off his war footage at the newsroom without wanting to take any credit or leverage the footage for a job at the newsroom.
Buster’s footage screens much better this time then it did in his first attempt. Sally, Harold, and the boss sit excitedly viewing Buster’s well shot, action-packed war footage. Suddenly Buster’s dream of becoming a newsreel cameraman has been achieved. But what does it matter if he can’t be with Sally? Luckily for him, the footage of him bravely rescuing Sally filmed by his best primate first assistant allows Sally to firmly reject the egotistical Harold and run to the street to find Buster to reconcile. The film fades to black as Buster and Sally walk hand and hand through a crowded, confetti-filled street to the newsroom for Buster’s great reception as a cameraman.
While not Buster’s strongest and tightest structured film of his silent career, The Cameraman shows off Buster’s creativity in front of and behind the camera. Through a mixture of hilarious gags and set pieces, experimental footage, heart-pumping action, and a cute if not simple love story, the film is an enjoyable and heartwarming comedy. In essence, The Cameraman is a love letter to filmmaking written by Buster Keaton, the cameraman.
If you enjoyed this article on Buster Keaton, don’t forget to check out the rest of the articles written by my fellow bloggers in Silentology’s Sixth Annual Buster Keaton blogathon featured here.