Buster Keaton's THE CAMERAMAN is the comic's last great silent film, a hilarious and touching story about the misadventures of a would-be newsreel cameraman in Manhattan.
A hapless tintype photographer named Buster (Buster Keaton) meets a pretty girl named Sally (Marceline Day) who works for the MGM-Hearst newsreel department, but he loses her in a parade. He goes to the MGM building to find her and asks if he can get a job as a newsreel cameraman. She tells him he
should buy a new camera, so he pawns his tintype for a broken-down $125 movie camera. Back at the MGM office, the boss tells Buster to get lost, but he overhears a call reporting a warehouse fire, and Sally encourages him to go film it. Buster can't find the warehouse, so he jumps on a fire engine
that's speeding down the street. Unfortunately, it pulls right into a fire station, and Buster misses the fire. He decides to film everything he can, and winds up at Yankee stadium, which is completely empty, so he stages a one-man baseball game and pantomimes pitching, hitting and running all by
himself. He takes his film back to MGM and shows the boss, but it's a fiasco, as the film shows double-exposures of battleships cruising down Broadway and cars piled on top of each going in all directions. Thoroughly dejected, he asks Sally out on a date and gives her his phone number. She tells
him she has a date on Sunday, but will call if it's cancelled.
Sunday morning at the crack of dawn, Buster is dressed in a suit and tie, patiently waiting for the phone to ring. When it finally rings, he runs down three flights of steps to answer it and Sally tells him her date is off, so she can meet him. He runs outside while she's still talking and races
over to her, showing up as she hangs up the phone. They get on a double-decker bus, but are separated, so Buster climbs outside from the top to the bottom and sits on the wheel rim. At a public swimming pool, Buster gets stuck in a tiny dressing room with a fat man and they keep knocking into each
other. Buster comes out in a giant bathing suit and looks for Sally, who's surrounded by a group of men. Buster tries to impress her with his diving, but he trips and falls off the board, losing his bathing suit. Swimming naked through a crowd of women, Buster steals the pants from a fat lady and
runs out of the pool. Sally and Buster go outside and run into Stagg, a newsreel cameraman from Sally's office who has a crush on her. He gives them a ride, but puts Buster in the rumble seat and it starts to pour, soaking Buster. Back in the city, Sally says goodnight to Buster and gives him a
Monday morning, Buster shows up at the newsreel office and Sally sends him down to film a Chinese holiday celebration. Buster runs down to Chinatown, but knocks over a gypsy and his monkey. The gypsy tells a cop the monkey's been killed, so Buster pays him for it and takes the monkey away, but the
monkey's still alive and jumps on his shoulder. In Chinatown, a tong war breaks out with machine-gun fire and rioting. Buster is right in the middle of it and gets footage from every angle. Back at the newsreel office, he discovers that there was no film in the camera and leaves in disgrace. The
next day, Buster discovers that the reel of film with the tong war was switched by the monkey, and they go to a yacht club race and film Sally and Stagg in a speedboat. The boat turns over, throwing Sally and Stagg into the water, and Buster jumps in to save her as Stagg swims ashore. Buster
carries an unconscious Sally onto the shore and rushes to a drug store, but Stagg goes over to Sally as she wakes up and pretends he was the one who saved her. When Buster returns, he sees Sally and Stagg walking away together, arm in arm. Buster sinks to his knees in sorrow, but the monkey is
cranking the movie camera and has been filming the whole thing.
The next day, Buster sells his camera back to the pawnshop and gives his film to the newsreel office. The boss screens it and sees that not only is the Chinatown tong war on it, but it also shows Buster rescuing Sally. The boss tells Sally to get Buster, and she runs out to find him, telling him
that he's a hero. Just then, a ticker tape parade for Charles Lindbergh begins, and Buster walks down the street waving his hat to the crowd, thinking the celebration is for him.
THE CAMERAMAN was Keaton's first movie under his new deal with MGM after he had been convinced by his brother-in-law, producer Joseph M. Schenck, to give up independent production and sign a studio contract. Although this situation would eventually ruin Buster with a string of dismal MGM talkies,
he was still able to maintain a fair degree of autonomy on this first production, which is actually one of his best films. In fact, some of the funniest scenes in the film were improvised by Keaton on the set, and weren't in the script, much to the chagrin of the control-freak studio executives.
One of these, the brilliant dressing room sequence, with an uncredited Edward Brophy and Buster trying to change into their bathing suits, is hysterical, and was an obvious precursor to the famous stateroom scene in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA (1935). The other great set-pieces are equally exquisite and
demonstrate Keaton's perfect comic timing, such as when he runs to answer the phone and winds up on the roof and in the basement as the camera cranes up and down the side of the building; the lovely baseball-game pantomime; the wild tong war, with Buster imperturbably filming a full scale melee;
and the incredibly moving finale on the beach, which concludes with one of the most poignant and beautiful camera movements of all time, as a heartbroken Buster drops to his knees and the camera tracks back, only to reveal the monkey cranking the handle on the newsreel camera.
As in SHERLOCK JR., Keaton integrated his love of film and movies with his usual incredible sight gags and stunts, playing with double-exposures and other conventions of cinematic technique. In a way, the film can be viewed as a metaphor for his new relationship with the MGM factory, with Keaton
symbolically rebelling against his employee status by displaying his creative eccentricity. Buster constantly fought with MGM production chief Irving G. Thalberg, who tried to play up the romantic and melodramatic elements, as he would later do with the Marx Brothers, and this time, Buster won
most of the battles. His next MGM film would be a different story, however. SPITE MARRIAGE (1929) clearly shows that Louis B. Mayer and Thalberg had begun to flex their muscles and rein in Keaton's imagination and free-spirit by saddling him with studio writers and a traditional character, and
making sure the prefabricated script was followed punctiliously. It was the beginning of the end for a great comic genius and one of the saddest stories in movie history. In 1950, MGM remade THE CAMERAMAN as WATCH THE BIRDIE, with Keaton relegated to the role of an uncredited gag man for Red
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- Review: Buster Keaton's THE CAMERAMAN is the comic's last great silent film, a hilarious and touching story about the misadventures of a would-be newsreel cameraman in Manhattan. A hapless tintype photographer named Buster (Buster Keaton) meets a pretty girl name… (more)