The Mechanics of The Cameraman by matthew c. hoffman

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“You must always grind forward… never backward.” ~ Sally to Buster in The Cameraman

In 1917, Buster Keaton was introduced to movie making when he was given a tour  of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s studio, which was operating in New York. “Anything special you want to see first?” Arbuckle asked his guest. “Yes,” Keaton replied. “The camera.” With those words, Buster Keaton began a lifelong fascination with the camera. He was fascinated not just by how it worked, but by what it could do. Buster immediately thought of the medium’s possibilities which could free him from the reality of the theatrical stage. The films, as author Rudi Blesh wrote, “could preserve forever the happy harlequin magic of a clown.”

Our audiences have seen in weeks past the extent of Buster Keaton’s genius in films like Sherlock, Jr., The Navigator, and Steamboat Bill, Jr. He had the mind of an engineer; his films reflect a technical brilliance unseen in other comedies of the time. He embraced the technology whole-heartedly.  Buster knew how to tell stories with a camera. What he told were stories about heroes battling both man and nature.

The onscreen Buster appeared to have a tentative, handshake agreement with the Universe’s natural order; he always seemed to escape unscathed. Like the eye of a hurricane, he was the calm in the storm. Chaos— be it a cyclone or a Chinese Tong War—was always around him. A recurring theme pitted Buster against the mechanical world of man’s creation. Whether it was a steamboat or a locomotive, his characters used machinery to overcome the disorder. In The Cameraman, Buster finally triumphs and brings order when his camera captures the Chinatown footage.

In film after film, set piece after set piece, Keaton’s characters defy the physical laws of the universe. It’s a strange, sometimes surreal relationship. We wonder how any mortal could survive a dynamic where a series of fortunate accidents keeps the race going at silent speed. Buster bent the laws of physics in his favor. The Buster we see onscreen was larger than life– an American myth who embodied a stoic heroism. Behind the camera that shaped this identity was a man who had complete mastery of the form. His command of the camera was simply effortless.

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It is somewhat ironic, then, that in The Cameraman Buster should play a tintype photographer who knows absolutely nothing about motion pictures. In the projection room we witness our hero’s technical incompetency when it becomes evident he has double-exposed the images he so desperately sought to capture as a newsreel photographer. Like Sherlock, Jr., The Cameraman is about film, but in an altogether different way. Tonight’s film does not playfully probe the line between illusion and reality the way the earlier film did. The Cameraman is simply a story about making movies.

After years as an independent filmmaker, Keaton came to a crossroads in his career. He turned to the biggest studio in town where he hoped for larger budgets and better distribution of his films. MGM was the studio that boasted having “more stars than there are in Heaven,” but they did not have a comedy star until Buster arrived at the gates of MGM with his bag of gags. It was a situation he was forced into when his long-time producer, Joe Schenck, decided to close shop. The days of the independents were coming to an end, and Buster did not have the money to produce his own films the way Chaplin and Lloyd did.

The Cameraman was a promising beginning for Keaton at his new home. The end product was so perfect that MGM proudly used it as a comedy training film to show future comedians how a comedy should be made. It would influence films such as The Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera. Of course, the studio saw this film as a model MGM comedy. They didn’t get it. The reality is that its perfection went beyond big-budget gloss. The film is a classic because of Buster Keaton, not because of the studio’s method of creating it.

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It was directed by a former vaudevillian named Edward Sedgwick, who would direct most of Buster’s MGM features, but it was Buster who was the creative force behind it. He was able to assemble some of his old production crew, such as cameraman Elgin Lessley as well as writer Clyde Bruckman, who had been co-director on The General. What they fashioned was a capsule of the Keaton mystique. Again, he is a character who reflects both strength and resilience with that familiar, shy innocence towards women.

This was the first time Keaton worked from a studio-approved script. Though Bruckman is credited as a co-writer of the story, there were many people contributing to it. Much of it Buster had to eliminate as unnecessary, such as subplots involving gangsters. The Cameraman does have about the funniest inter-title in any silent comedy—silent films had their own title writers– and it comes when Keaton runs into the organ grinder on the street and flattens the monkey.

Interfering producers put an over-emphasis on the written scenario. This is an example of the studio system impeding his creative process. Improvisation was frowned upon by the studio as something that was too costly. “Slapstick has a format,” Buster once said, “but it is hard to detect in its early stages unless you are one of those who can create it. The unexpected was our staple product, the unusual our object, and the unique was the ideal we were always hoping to achieve.” Nevertheless, two of the best moments were completely improvised: Buster trying to open his piggybank in his apartment, and his one-man ballgame at an empty Yankee Stadium– a sequence that shows off his great talent as a mime.

The film was only partially shot in New York. Buster Keaton was too recognizable a figure to blend in. Location shooting didn’t go as smoothly for him as it had for Harold Lloyd with Speedy. Only a few street scenes were actually filmed while the rest were recreated back in Culver City. Coney Island, for instance, was actually Venice Beach.

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Marceline Day portrays Sally, and she is actually one of Buster’s strongest heroines. His relationship with her is probably the most romantic in any of his films. The comedy business between them seems to grow naturally from the story. Fans may never see Marceline Day in London After Midnight— the most famous of all lost films which she starred in the year before– but she can be seen in a somewhat revealing bathing suit in The Cameraman– more revealing when it’s wet. She appeared in many of Harry Langdon’s short films as well. She passed away in 2000 at the age of 91.

Harold Goodwin portrays Stagg, the rival. Goodwin was a native of Peoria, Illinois, and appeared in over 200 films including, most notably, All Quiet on the Western Front. An online reference claims he was killed in 1987 for adultery! Keaton enthusiasts will remember him as the rival in College, and he appeared in the Educational Pictures shorts like Grand Slam Opera as the band leader.

Also, viewers should look for Vernon Dent, a familiar face to all fans of the Three Stooges, as well as Edward Brophy, who would go on to have a successful career as a character actor. Brophy appears with Buster in the changing room scene at the pool—a four-minute sequence which was done in a single take. Buster believed that rehearsed scenes looked mechanical.

The Cameraman is Buster’s last great film before he faded into the studio background—lost somewhere along the studio assembly line. In the ensuing years, he would lose more and more creative control; he was not the sort to fight to get it back. As a result, he appeared in films that any other comedian could’ve starred in. MGM didn’t listen to Buster’s ideas or give him his own independednt unit, which is what they should’ve done. Around the time of The Cameraman, Buster had an interesting idea for a Western with Marie Dressler as his costar, but apparently there wasn’t enough plot to satisfy Irving Thalberg.

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MGM never really knew what to do with him, turning him into a sad clown and starring him in stagey quasi-musicals like Free and Easy instead of giving him roles that would offer physical comedy over dull movie talk. Gags defined Buster’s films—not songs or plot twists. Buster was often cast as a dim-witted character named “Elmer” who lacked the ingenuity and resourcefulness of his earlier characters from the silent days. He was eventually mismatched with the overbearing Jimmy Durante for a few films in which they starred as a comedy team. The last of these, What! No Beer? in 1933 was the bottom of the beer barrel for Buster.

The combination of marital strife and creative disintegration led him to the bottle. MGM fired him when he became too unreliable on set. From there, he moved on to Educational and then Columbia Pictures where he also starred in a series of two-reel comedies. Buster would eventually overcome his alcoholism and remarry, but his career never recovered. Perhaps he could’ve had a second life had he teamed up with a director who shared his ideas of using sound in a new way, like Europe’s Rene Clair, for example, but that is only a film historian’s fantasy.

Tonight’s film is a real joy. The Cameraman summarizes what critic James Agee called the Silent Era’s “beauties of comic motion which are hopelessly beyond reach of words.” Watching Buster Keaton run down the street is in itself a thing of beauty. We can never take our eyes off him. That’s how kinetic a physical performer he is, but beyond the physicality, there is an expressiveness belying The Great Stone Face, and it comes in the eyes. This latter facet of Buster is sometimes lost when audiences see the feats of physical comedy, but the stone face could not mask the great actor he was. It’s all there on the screen.

The Cameraman is a film about a photographer trying to get the best shot, but we are the ones who are rewarded. We are witnessing a beautifully-constructed film with all the right shots.

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