There are few heroes of the silent era more instantly recognisable than Buster Keaton; the prat-falling, often befuddled and occasionally clownish hero of dozens of films. One of the landmark films he made, was The Cameraman. It is notable as his first film after he signed to the MGM studio as a major star.
The story follows Buster as the hapless titular cameraman who, while selling his tintype portraits in downtown New York, happens across Sally (Marceline Day). Instantly smitten, he tries to impress her by getting a job as a newsreel filmer at MGM. In the process of shooting footage, he wanders across New York, goofs around in Yankee Stadium, and ends up getting into a series of japes, including a full scale Tong War in Chinatown.
It’s a typical Keaton affair, with him engaging in all manner of slapstick, and clownish mummery. As you would expect with his signature stunting prowess, physical mastery of his own body, and excellent comic timing. What’s most fascinating about The Cameraman is that historically it sits as one of the final shining moments in Keaton’s career, and probably the last truly grand film he’d have completely free artistic expression making. It may have Sedgwick’s name at the top, but Keaton was the visionary here.
As a film, it’s more a series of collected vignettes, lashed together with a loose narrative, than a wholly cohesive story. But that’s all part of the fun. The five minutes or so spent with Buster miming a baseball game on the empty diamond is superfluous in the extreme, but still rises grins and chuckles. It’s simply a joy to watch, and a testament to the immortal power of great comedy.
Criterion rarely skimp on their releases, and The Cameraman is no exception. It’s an attractive collector package, with the beautifully transferred print in delightfully crisp form for a near-century old film. With a bevy of interviews and essays on Keaton’s life and career, and various aspects of Hollywood history. The best added feature is the inclusion of Keaton’s next film, Spite Marriage, remastered to what is only a slightly lesser quality.
Available on Blu-ray from Mon Jul 20 2020