A graphic designer we know had a client who refused all her best ideas. They chopped away at her designs until they looked, well, awful.
“They took a piece of my soul,” she said wrily.
On the surface, it appears to be a vintage Keaton film, and in many ways it is. Keaton stars as a New York sidewalk tintype photographer who joins the MGM Newsreel Department to impress a woman who works there.
It’s still the same lovable Buster Keaton character: His tintype photographer is woefully out of step with the Modern World of the 1920s. Although tintype photography is gaining a bit of traction now, it hasn’t been really popular since the 1860s and 1870s.
In order to join the Newsreel Team, he trades his tintype gear for a second-hand movie camera. Keaton’s equipment is cheap and inferior, unlike the high-tech models the other cameramen have, and the newsreel boss doesn’t give him any assignments.
However, Keaton’s character gets a Lucky Break and becomes a hero in the end. We knew he had it in him all along.
So why does The Cameraman feel a bit off? Why is it good and disappointing at the same time?
Now, you may think we’re unfair, and perhaps we are. Many people say The Cameraman is as good as Keaton’s previous films.
It is entertaining, but you can tell it was orchestrated by someone else, in this case, MGM Studios.
This was the first film Keaton made at the studio; before this he was an independent filmmaker. It was his business partner and independent film producer, Joseph M. Schenck, who advised Keaton to move to MGM due to financial pressures. Later Keaton said Schenck “never steered me wrong in his life until then. I do not think he meant to that time, either. … In the end I gave in.”¹
Charlie Chaplin advised him Not To Do It, but, no matter how famous you are, bills gotta be paid.
MGM was the antithesis of the Buster Keaton movie-making style. The studio had specific departments for specific roles, and there was No Deviation. Keaton’s approach was more chaotic and improvisational.
However, in MGM’s defence, the studio had the same business model as all major Hollywood studios. Signing a contract with any of them would likely produce the same results.
The premise of The Cameraman was MGM’s idea, allegedly meant to impress newspaper magnate (and MGM stockholder) William Randolph Hearst. They assigned studio crews, writers and a director, although Keaton wasn’t entirely Shut Out of the process. The studio also – and somewhat understandably – outlawed the dangerous stunts for which Keaton was known.
It’s great to have the resources of a big studio, but Keaton’s daring and cleverness is largely absent in this film. Instead we have half-hearted gags (Keaton slips on a banana peel – seriously? Was part of the scene removed?). The man himself looks a bit rough, likely due to personal issues.
Or like someone had taken a piece of his soul.
The problem is, Keaton was a gifted filmmaker who treated audiences to inventive and ingenious films, such as The General (1926), Sherlock Jr. (1924), and Go West (1925). There was no way a team of studio professionals could duplicate Keaton’s magic.
But MGM came close, very close. The Cameraman is a wonderful film, and his next feature, Spite Marriage (1929), is even better. These two films would be the last of Keaton’s silents, until he made The Railrodder (1965.)
Even so, it was a bad marriage between Keaton and MGM, and he was fired in 1933. He said his studio experience was “the worst mistake of my life”.²
We heartily recommend The Cameraman. However, watching it is bittersweet because Buster Keaton was already a man in decline, his most prolific filmmaking days soon to be behind him.
¹San Francisco Silent Film Festival. (Retrieved February 7, 2019.) The Cameraman, by Dennis Harvey.
This post is part of the FIFTH ANNUAL BUSTER KEATON BLOGATHON hosted by Silent-ology.
The Cameraman: starring Buster Keaton, Marceline Day, Harold Goodwin. Directed by Edward Sedgwick (& Buster Keaton). Written by Clyde Bruckman & Lew Lipton. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1928, B&W, 69 mins.