Combustible Celluloid
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With: Buster Keaton, Marceline Day, Harold Goodwin, Sidney Bracey, Harry Gribbon
Written by: Clyde Bruckman, Joe Farnham, Lew Lipton, Richard Schayer
Directed by: Edward Sedgwick, Buster Keaton
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 69
Date: 09/28/1928

The Cameraman (1928)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Picture Perfect

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

After working as an independent filmmaker and creating a series of comic masterworks, writer, actor, and director Buster Keaton was approached to sign a contract with MGM. Despite warnings from friends and his own misgivings, Keaton signed and found himself in an extremely difficult situation. He later said that it was the worst mistake of his life.

Ironically, Keaton's first film with MGM, The Cameraman (1928), is actually one of his best, even though he made it despite the rigid guidelines that MGM executives insisted he follow. They demanded a finished script with all the gags worked out in advance, while Keaton loved to improvise with whatever he found on the set. In addition, Keaton did not take a directorial credit, even though he was still the chief creator of his films.

Starting as a milquetoast and learning heroism as the film progresses, The Cameraman gave Buster one of his best roles and he filled it with one of his most touching and fleshed-out performances, using mostly his intense eyes. He plays a tintype photographer who falls in love with a pretty girl (Marceline Day) and decides that he can win her over by becoming a newsreel cameraman. The film contains Buster's famous, beautifully improvised one-man baseball game filmed at Yankee Stadium, and the classic scene with he and another man crammed into a changing booth together, both trying to climb into swim suits. Best of all is Buster's first test reel, a series of double-exposed footage that shows, among other things, a battleship floating down the street.

Warner Bros. Home Entertainment released the film on DVD back in 2004, and the Criterion Collection has given it a superb new Blu-ray treatment for 2020. They keep the original commentary track by Glenn Mitchell (author of A-Z of Silent Film Comedy: An Illustrated Companion), but adds a new score by composer Timothy Brock, conducted by Brock and performed by the orchestra of the Teatro Comunale di Bologna in 2020, presented in uncompressed stereo.

The Blu-ray includes Keaton's second MGM film, and his final silent film, Spite Marriage (1929), which sadly shows the filmmaker losing ground in the battle with the MGM executives. It includes the 2004 commentary track by silent-era film historians John Bengstrom and Jeffrey Vance.

The gags here are a little more routine and tend to pale next to the earlier masterworks, but the film still has some high points and an excellent female lead. Buster appears as a love-struck pants presser who falls in love with a famous actress and attends all her shows wearing borrowed clothes from his business. When her boyfriend dumps her, she marries Buster for revenge on the fly, but quickly separates from him. Heartbroken, Buster winds up at sea, first escaping a boatload of smugglers, then aboard a fancy yacht. Because of a fire, everyone abandons ship except for Buster and one other passenger -- his estranged wife!

The film gets funnier as it dispenses with plot and gets to the sea-going gags. According to the commentary track, Buster insisted on including a scene in every film in which he gets soaked with water. He considered it a good luck charm and a box office draw.

Because it was made in the early days of the sound era, Spite Marriage has a built-in soundtrack score with scattered special effects, although the dialogue is still silent. (MGM only had one sound stage at the time, and it was booked solid.)

Criterion's disc includes another bonus from the 2004 disc, the short documentary So Funny It Hurt: Buster Keaton & MGM, hosted by actor James Karen (a friend of Buster's) and produced by Kevin Brownlow. New bonuses include interviews with historians John Bengtson and Marc Wanamaker, a new interview with James L. Neibaur, author of The Fall of Buster Keaton: His Films for MGM, Educational Pictures, and Columbia, and a restored 1979 documentary on the motion picture camera. The liner notes booklet contains an essay by film critic Imogen Sara Smith, and an excerpt from Keaton's autobiography, co-written by Charles Samuels. This disc is highly recommended.

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