Buster Keaton described his time at MGM as being the worst decision of his life. He gave up almost all the creative control of his films, and was eventually forced to work on ones that he had no interest in. The new arrangement was a disaster, both personally and professionally, but nonetheless produced some of his most commercially successful work. There was, however, a brief honeymoon period where the studio’s restrictions hadn’t yet begun to chafe and the film-making process was more of a collaborative effort, and the result of this was The Cameraman.
This was the first film Keaton made for MGM, and many would say the last great film of his career. The Cameraman is an incredibly assured, energetic film; a proto-Romantic comedy featuring Keaton as a love-struck cameraman, on the hunt for some sensational footage to impress the girl of his dreams (the brilliant Marceline Day). The story is meticulously constructed, beginning with more modest, low stakes stunts, and building to some of the most impressive set-pieces of Keaton’s career.
There are some breathtaking stunts, including a particularly dangerous boat rescue that’s more thrilling than most action sequences today. The climactic brawl in Chinatown is also incredible and Keaton uses every trick up his sleeve to make it a thrilling battle, with his character keeping his camera rolling through it all, even as the platform beneath him gives way. Just as memorable though is the smaller scale sequence set in a tiny changing room that Keaton has to share with an angry, burly man. It’s an intensely claustrophobic yet hilarious scene, as they elbow and shove each other, until finally breaking into a (very one-sided) fight.
The stunts are matched by the cinematography which is incredible, and looks especially beautiful in this 4K restoration for Criterion. The use of an elevator camera as Keaton walks up and down the stairs in his apartment building is especially memorable. It looks like a living cartoon strip – and you can see the influence it has had on contemporary cinema (especially Wes Anderson), and the restoration combined with the new score composed for this release makes this the best way to experience this film.
As with Keaton’s best films, however dangerous the stunts, however beautiful the cinematography, if it doesn’t have a human connection none of it really lands. Thankfully the central relationship between Keaton and Day is one of the sweetest in any of his films. They have great chemistry right from their first meeting – where he positions her for a photo and gets so bowled over that he initially forgets to take the photo. The film makes brilliant use of Keaton’s melancholy eyes as he gazes longingly at her from a distance – he conveys so much in that one look, that his acquired nickname “Stoneface” feels really wide of the mark.
The unique thing about Buster Keaton, and what sets him apart from Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, is his vulnerability. It’s why the nickname is a bit misleading. Yes, his deadpan facial expressions are a huge part of his comedy, but just as important are his incredibly expressive eyes, which are full of emotion. Keaton’s shy, diffident persona makes him instantly likeable and gives him an added poignancy that Chaplin never quite manages, and The Cameraman is one of the best demonstrations of this. It remains one of Keaton’s finest films, and Criterion’s release makes it look better than ever.
Criterion releases are always special, and this is no exception. There is another feature film, Spite Marriage included here as a special feature but really good enough to warrant a release on it’s own. There is also another documentary Time Travellers, an interview with Keaton biographer James L Neibaur and a commentary from Glenn Mitchell. The most interesting by far is So Funny It Hurt: Buster Keaton At MGM, a refreshingly candid look at a particularly difficult period in Keaton’s life.