Buster Keaton's The Cameraman is a wonderful picture, filled with sadness and uproarious, silly comedy, and if it isn't the funniest of Keaton's pictures it has one of the best stories in his films. Ironically Keaton wasn't terribly hot to make the film; he signed a contract with MGM and didn't like the lack of creative freedom (which, meta-irony of things, this film would be about a cameraman named Buster trying to break in as an MGM photog-for-hire). This would be exacerbated over the years, but for his debut feature under contract, it was for a moment a partnership made just right. MGM and their writers were able to get what Keaton's whole shtick or just his appeal was, and Keaton was able, after some harranging, to get what he wanted which was some improvisation.
When I say it's not one of the funniest Keaton pictures, it's like saying that 'this Van Gogh isn't one of his most colorful'. I mean, hell, it's still Van Gogh and it's still Keaton! It's a character who, many times in his films, we in the audience may think to ourselves "Oh, poor Buster", and without any sarcasm. This is a guy who just can't catch a break, which is usually the deal with silent movie clowns. He keeps struggling and inching to get something- a job, a girl, some kind of status, anything- and in this case it's kind of all three.
|Murnau could get away with it, but Keaton?|
It's mostly a matter of trials and tribulations for Buster, until the big climactic (or pre-climactic?) mini-war with Chinese gangs in the streets. This is the kind of sequence Buster Keaton was created for, as he's at first just in the midst of the chaos, filming away, but then caught up in the mayhem (a metaphor for his career up to that point, it's more than possible to me, more like an in-joke). His camera-stand legs get shot off one by one, he's attacked left and right, he dodges, he ducks, he's like a ninja all unto himself amongst more street thugs with knives. At one point a thug tries to stab Buster, but he misses and Buster clonks him on the head. Then he just shoots the guy with the camera. It's a hilarious moment tinged with the daring-do of a guy, and actor, who was fearless on screen.
|Checking your pulse... good, dead, and action!|
The Cameraman may not have been a movie Keaton wanted to make, at least as much as he did others in his independent period with Joseph Shenck the producer. But it's got the goods that fans and just newcomers and people looking for a good comedy and some heart to it want: Buster just has a lot of bad luck, that's the main circumstance he has to conquer, and he does it with perseverance and a look like "okay, what next", but not as a question. He's not as endearing as the 'Tramp', but he doesn't need to be, and shouldn't, as he's more like the comic-clown we might find working at a pub or trying to work on a formula in a lab. And he never smiles... ever.... Whoa.
|Original version of the end scene from Barton Fink|
In big spurts, like a solo-time at Yankee Stadium for the camera at the bat, The Cameraman meets heights of genius that Keaton was capable of as a filmmaker and star, and its story is rich with fun characters and great set-ups and pay-offs, not to mention a genuine love for cinema and its bizarre passageways to creation. It's a highlight in a career that, sadly afterwards, would be spotty from then on.