Saturday, 13 October 2012

Buster Keaton in The Cameraman (1928)

Buster Keaton
I haven’t written much on here about silent comedy aside from a very short comment on Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last. Maybe I’ve been put off by the amount of material already available or possibly I don’t trust my sense of humour…

From the very start of my interest in silent films I’ve always been a Buster boy rather than a Chaplin kid… as I’ve got older this still holds true, although clearly they should both be revered. Not just two of the greatest comics but two of the greatest film-makers.

Hitching a ride
Buster Keaton seemed a lot more physically high-impact than Chaplin and, in addition to subjecting himself to grand moments of actual peril, steam engines… falling buildings…  he looked faster, harder and more robust. Less of a mime and more of a maniac!

Here is seen in a way-too-large bathing costume but there’s no disguising his muscularity. Buster was fit and he needed to be to cover the ground as he carried on into his thirties with a number of career-sustained injuries…

Buster Keaton and Marceline Day
But the most agile thing about Buster was his mind and in The Cameraman he just keeps the ideas coming. He plays an imaginary game of baseball at Yankee Stadium, taking strike, fielding and running all by himself. Waiting for the phone to ring he runs up and down the stairs - too far down to the basement and too far up the roof... When his girl does ring he runs across town at full pelt to greet her as she places the phone on the receiver.

It’s all run at relentless pace by a man at the peak of his creative fitness…Unable to find a seat on the crowded bus he rides alongside Sally on the wheel arch, then he changes alongside a much larger man in a tiny cubicle at the pool and emerges in the other man’s costume only for it to get lost underwater without him as he tumbles off the diving board. Breathless.

A little large...
The story begins as it ends, at a parade. Buster is a 10c a shot tintype photographer. He becomes entranced by a young woman he photographs (Sally, played by the elegant Marceline Day) and, after losing her in the confusion, begins a relentless search to find her. He tracks her down to the MGM news service where he attempts to get a job as a cameraman in order to impress her.

His initial attempts all end in failure as her catches a fire engine the wrong way to a warehouse fire, arrives at Yankee Stadium when they’re playing away and then double and triple exposes his film… keep winding it forward and not backward, is Sally’s advice.

A lovely Day
Sally senses something in Buster and agrees to go on a date. They have an hilarious time in the pool where Buster struggles to fight off any number of would be suitors. Then, as they walk to the beach, pro-cameraman and rival in chief, Stagg (Harold Goodwin) offers them a lift…Sally in the front of his two-seat saloon and Buster getting soaked to the skin in the third seat by the boot.

Sally tips Buster off about a potential gang fight at the Chinese New Year celebrations. At last, he’s the right man at the right time and he fearlessly films the battle, aided by a clever monkey he picked up along the way…

Man and monkey...
But, after all this it seems that Buster forgot to load his camera.  He gets the can and that looks to be very much it… We next see Buster trying to film a speed boat race. Sally and Stagg are in one of the3 boats and Stagg loses control sending both flying as his boat circles around a helpless Sally. Buster bravely goes to the rescue only for Stagg to take the credit and the girl!

But all is not lost…

Buster Keaton and Marceline Day
The Cameraman is rightly regarded as one of Keaton’s classics and possibly his last major work. He’d lost his own company by this point and was working for MGM. But, in the case of this picture at least, it did not restrict his energy and innovation. Edward Sedgwick directed the film but with a fair amount of Keaton intervention alongside the invention... a crossover point in the way these films were made.

This was the third silent film of the weekend in our house and grabbed the attention of teenagers and spouse alike: the timeless cool of Buster Keaton. Because that’s ultimately it about Mr Keaton, he is cool and intelligent. He’s relentless and nothing stops him getting where he needs to go. He doesn’t moan or get down, he takes it all with dispassionate grace and emerges ultimately triumphant and with the girl. 

The Cameraman is available as part of the Keaton Collection from TCM along with Spite Marriage and Free and Easy.

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