Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Cameraman (MGM, 1928)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The Cameraman was a film I hadn’t seen in years, but it was as deliciously funny and moving as I remembered it. It was Buster Keaton’s first film at MGM, and he fought the studio like mad but got to make it his way — though it was still a silent film at a time when Keaton was desperate to strut his stuff in a talkie (the many verbal gags in the subtitles — which read less like normal silent-film titles and more like dialogue repartée in a sound comedy — indicate how eager he was to make a sound film, and how good he would have been at it if he’d been able to maintain control of himself and his career).

The print TCM was showing was quite a good one, taken from a newly discovered first-generation positive print from the MGM vaults — though, as the opening title explains, one scene (in which Keaton’s girlfriend at MGM News, played by Marceline Day, gives him the tip that a Tong War is about to take place in Chinatown) was missing from this positive print and had to be filled in from the earlier version of the film, discovered in France in 1968. (I’d seen this film twice in the 1970’s and never noticed anything unidiomatic about the titles — either the original English titles survived or the French translations were better than they usually were; in some cases in which silent films survived only in prints from non-English-speaking countries, the translators made such hash of the titles that the films barely made sense anymore.) As TCM’s annotator promised, the difference between the two sources was quite obvious: the French version was washed out, with ghostly white faces and a blurry background, while the 1991 discovery suffered from occasional nitrate deterioration but was otherwise beautiful, luminous, finely grained, richly detailed and showed off the quality of the original photography by Elgin Lessley (Keaton’s favorite cameraman) and Reggie Lanning (though it must also be said that the finer detail of this print shows that Keaton’s alcoholism was already beginning to take its toll on his looks, though not yet on his stunning physical coordination).

The film is a charming tale — though Keaton’s character is a bit more nebbishy than usual — and contains some of his greatest set pieces: Keaton frantically running up and down the staircase in the boarding house he lives in when he is expecting his girlfriend to call; Keaton attempting to change clothes in a public-pool dressing room the size of a phone booth and getting his clothes mixed up with those of a much larger man in the room with him (one wonders if this was the inspiration for the famous scene in the stateroom in A Night at the Opera, written by ex-Keaton gag man Al Boasberg); Keaton risking life and limb to get newsreel shots of the Tong War; and the finale in which the organ-grinder’s monkey Keaton has picked up continues grinding away at the camera and thereby shows Day that she was rescued from drowning not by her other boyfriend, but by Keaton. — 7/13/98


The movie at last night’s Organ Pavilion concert was a comedy classic: The Cameraman, the 1928 feature that was a turning point in the career of Buster Keaton for both good and ill. Just before it was made, Keaton’s producer, Joseph M. Schenck, had decided to dissolve the independent production company he and Keaton jointly owned, and arranged for Keaton to work at MGM, since Schenck’s brother Nicholas was president of the company. What Keaton didn’t realize — or maybe he did — was that he wouldn’t be working for his old mentor’s brother, since Nick Schenck ran MGM’s business affairs from a New York office but had nothing to do with actually making films; instead he ran smack into Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg, the production chiefs at the studio, who intended to run it as a tight ship and had no use for quirky, independent talents like Keaton.

Thalberg assigned his brother-in-law, Lawrence Weingarten, to be Keaton’s producer, and comedy veteran Edward Sedgwick to be Keaton’s director — before that, Keaton had usually directed himself, though sometimes others (usually one or two of his gag writers) had received director credit on his films — and though eventually the studio officials would take over Keaton’s career and put him through professional grief that, combined with the breakdown of his marriage (to Joseph Schenck’s sister-in-law, Natalie Talmadge), activated his latent alcoholism, for The Cameraman MGM let Keaton (mostly) be Keaton and allowed him to make his last masterpiece.

The Cameraman stars Keaton as “Buster,” a tintype cameraman who’s barely making a living on the streets of New York — in the opening scene, his attempt to photograph a rare paying customer gets interrupted by a parade honoring New York’s then-mayor, Jimmy Walker — who happens to run into Sally (Marceline Day), the receptionist at MGM’s newsreel office. He’s immediately infatuated with her, and he determines to become a freelance newsreel cameraman himself in order to impress her. Of course, he’s got a rival, star cameraman Stagg (Harold Goodwin) — indeed, when Stagg walks in with his state-of-the-art camera while Buster has been flirting with Sally, there’s a marvelous little scene in which he seems as turned on by the camera as the girl.

Buster takes his last savings out of his bank to buy an ancient camera from a pawnshop and sets out to shoot whatever he can find to make the grade as a newsreel cinematographer (the writing committee — Clyde Bruckman, Lew Lipton and an uncredited Byron Morgan, story; Richard Schayer, continuity; Joe Farnham, titles; and an uncredited Al Boasberg, gags — never bothers to explain how he covers the added expense of buying film), and in a marvelously surrealistic (a word Keaton hated when used to describe his work) sequence his film comes back weirdly framed and double-, triple- and sometimes quadruple-exposed, including one scene in which a battleship actually seems to be sailing up a New York City street on its way to Times Square.

Buster tries to get to a warehouse fire but gets tongue-tied trying to ask a policeman (Harry Gribbon) for directions — one of many sequences in The Cameraman that’s funny as it stands but would have been even funnier in a sound film (unlike Charlie Chaplin, Keaton loved the idea of sound films and was eager to start making them, but by the time he did the “suits” at MGM had taken over his career completely and he wasn’t able to explore the creative uses of sound the way he’d been able to with the capabilities of silent film in the 1920’s) — and he goes to Yankee Stadium and finds it empty. “Aren’t the Yankees playing today?” he asks the groundskeeper. “Sure … in St. Louis!” is the reply. In one of the film’s most beautiful scenes, Buster takes the pitcher’s mound and pantomimes a ballgame, first from the point of view of the pitcher trying to pick off the base runners, then as a batter hitting a home run and triumphantly rounding the bases to win. (This scene was copied in Pastime, a mediocre baseball movie from 1991 that was an obvious attempt to suck off the commercial success of Field of Dreams.)

Buster finally gets Sally to take his phone number, and she promises to call — setting up a scene that transforms romantic longing into frantic comedy as Buster, who lives in a seedy rooming house (he practically tears out the paper-thin walls of his room when his piggy bank, on which he’s counting to finance his date, falls through a crack he’s made with a hammer trying to open the thing) with a long staircase between him and the building’s one phone, goes into hysterics (in both senses) whenever a call comes in, sometimes so excited he overshoots his mark and ends up either on the building’s roof or its basement. Keaton, ever the gadget lover, shot this scene with an elevator crane — a piece of equipment that allowed the camera to move up and down a multi-story building set, thereby following the action.

The elevator crane had been invented by director F. W. Murnau and cinematographer Karl Freund for the 1924 German film The Last Laugh, which was a big enough international hit that Keaton may well have seen it and copied the idea; 32 years after The Cameraman, Jerry Lewis used an elevator crane to follow himself around the multi-story department-store set of The Errand Boy — and at least one critic I’ve read falsely credited Lewis with being the first comedian to use the elevator crane. (This wasn’t the first time others had been credited with Keaton’s innovations; Fred Astaire’s dance scene to “You’re All the World to Me” in Royal Wedding — in which he literally dances up the wall, onto the ceiling and then down again, apparently defying gravity — and the sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey in which the flight attendant on the moonship walks up the wall and turns herself upside down to bring space scientist Heywood Floyd [William Sylvester] his meal, were both filmed with a technique Keaton invented for the submarine scenes at the end of his 1924 film The Navigator: a revolving set with a stationary camera bolted to it so the camera and the set always stayed in the same relative position, while the actors — in fact always at the bottom of the construction, whatever position it was in — appeared to defy gravity.)

When they go out, they go to the Municipal Plunge public swimming pool at Coney Island, and Buster gets trapped in a tiny dressing room with a corpulent man (uncredited but played by Ed Brophy, who’d be a popular character actor for decades afterwards — he acted again with Keaton as his drill sergeant in the 1930 World War I film Doughboys, that time getting screen credit) in a scene written by Keaton gagman Al Boasberg, who seven years later would again get laughs from too many people in too small a space when he wrote the stateroom scene for the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera. He ends up in a suit several sizes too big for him, while yet a third person (Vernon Dent, later a comic foil for the Three Stooges in many of their films) ends up with Keaton’s swimsuit and asks, “Is this a suit — or a bib?” Trying to impress Sally by showing off a dive, Buster loses his oversized suit in the water and there’s a surprisingly racy sequence in which he’s naked and can’t get out of the pool without revealing himself in the altogether. (He gets out of it by stealing part of a suit worn by a ridiculously overdressed woman, who screams, “Help! I’ve been robbed!”) But Sally drives home with someone else and Buster is relegated to the rumble seat of their car, where he’s drenched by a pouring rainstorm on their way home.

Still feeling sorry for him, and also more or less in love, Sally gives Buster a tip that two Chinese gangs are plotting a tong war and the Chinese new year’s celebrations are going to have a lot more than just fireworks this year. Buster arrives in Chinatown after a run-in with an organ grinder, who accuses Buster of killing his monkey and orders him to pay him for the animal. The monkey revives and follows Buster to Chinatown, where Buster risks his life and gets some incredible footage — at one point rather gilding his lily by slipping a knife into the hand of one of the tong warriors he’s shooting to make his footage look that much more thrilling. Only when he gets back to the MGM newsreel office, someone has taken the film magazine out of his camera and all that’s left is a tiny scrap of raw stock. (“Pretty short war,” says the MGM newsreel editor, played by Sidney Bracey in a role that was probably a relief to him if only because he got to play an authority figure instead of his usual valet.) Buster assumes that he forgot to load the camera with film, and he’s banned from the MGM newsreel office.

The next day he takes his camera to the Westport regatta, where his rival Stagg is taking Sally out in a speedboat. Attempting to show Sally how well he can drive the boat, Stagg takes a hazardous turn and capsizes it, swimming to safety himself but leaving Sally to drown. Buster reaches Sally in a rowboat he’s been using to film the regatta, and saves her — but when he brings her to shore she’s unconscious, and while he’s off at a drugstore getting substances to revive her Stagg comes along, takes her in his arms as she comes to, and pretends he rescued her. Buster goes back to his old trade as a tintyper — tintypes were hopelessly old-fashioned even in 1928 but his tintype camera itself has an oddly futuristic look, like a ray gun in a cheap 1950’s sci-fi movie — but he leaves behind his remaining footage at the MGM newsreel office, saying they can use it for free. It turns out to contain the tong war and also the scene of Sally’s rescue — the monkey, used to turning the crank of his old master’s barrel-organ, had cranked the camera and caught the whole thing, proving to Sally that it was Buster and not Stagg that saved her. The editor declares Buster’s (and the monkey’s) footage the best he’s ever seen, and Sally seeks out Buster and says he’s going to be honored — and just then the triumphal parade welcoming Charles Lindbergh (who’s seen in real newsreel footage of the event) starts up and Buster waves to the crowd, thinking the parade’s for him.

The Cameraman is a marvelous film — before it started Dennis James, who played the live organ accompaniment, read a contemporary review from Motion Picture magazine that said it wasn’t as good as The General (most modern critics and film buffs would agree, but that wasn’t the critical consensus in 1926; one of Keaton’s biographers quoted a New York Herald-Tribune review of The General that denounced the film and said some of the gags were in “gruesomely bad taste”) but was still very funny; this critic also misunderstood Marceline Day’s role and called her a stenographer (she’s a receptionist) — though it’s a peculiar item in the Keaton canon because it’s one of the few times this usually unsentimental comedian actually went for pathos, big-time.

The Cameraman may be the most openly Chaplinesque film of Keaton’s career — one could easily imagine Chaplin in the lead role as a lovesick cameraman who’s competing for his love object’s attentions with a hunkier and/or richer rival, whereas one can’t possibly imagine Chaplin in Sherlock, Jr. or The General — though it’s a testament to Keaton’s skill as both actor and editor (while the Russian directors were experimenting with closeups of an utterly impassive actor cut next to a pretty girl, a bowl of soup or a dying baby and noting that audiences read the scene and thought the actor was registering the emotions the viewers were actually supplying themselves, Keaton was — perhaps unwittingly — doing the same thing in his comedies) that he’s able within the limits of his unchanging “great stone face” expression to convey the same lovelorn emotions Chaplin used his full panoply of facial tics to get across.

The Cameraman even casts Keaton at the bottom of society, or close to it; like Chaplin in The Kid, Keaton in The Cameraman isn’t homeless but lives in a really cheap building — whereas in a lot of his earlier films Keaton had cast himself as an upper-class twit, as if he felt that the way to differentiate himself from Chaplin was to play the opposite end of the socioeconomic scale. What’s remarkable about The Cameraman is not only the individual gag scenes but the overall conception — though Dennis James accompanied it expertly it sometimes seemed less like a silent film than a talkie with the sound turned off, and as good as Joe Farnham’s joke titles were one really missed sound in some of the characters’ repartée — and also Keaton’s continuing fascination with the mechanics of film.

In Sherlock, Jr. he’d played a movie projectionist who dreams himself into the film he’s showing; here Keaton builds some of his best laughs out of the mechanics of making films, and though he’s usually not considered much of a satirist his treatment of the tong war is a marvelously understated commentary on how the media affect the events they cover and use trickery to make them seem even more exciting than they are. One can regret the ethnic stereotyping that mars this film — not only the tong war but also the Jewish name on the pawnbroker’s shop where Keaton buys his camera and the mock-Italian dialect from the organ grinder (“Hey! You kill-a da monk!” reads the title when the organ grinder demands payment from Keaton for his presumably dead monkey) — but that’s a minor blemish on a film that is not only funny as all get-out but was ripped off for years by other filmmakers (including an MGM crew 10 years later for Too Hot to Handle, with Clark Gable and Walter Pidgeon as rival newsreel cameramen not above faking footage to get more powerful stories before the public).

Indeed, The Cameraman for years was regarded as MGM’s training film for aspiring comedians; every new comedy act MGM signed was made to sit through it as an example of what the studio wanted from them — including the Marx Brothers, which particularly perplexed Groucho because he couldn’t help but wonder what the hell he was expected to learn from watching a comic genius whose style was so different from his own! — 8/25/09