Buster Keaton Goes to MGM

Buster Keaton (centre) and his second-hand movie camera. Image: IMDb

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.

We wondered about miserable work experiences when we watched the Buster Keaton film, The Cameraman (1928).

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?

Marceline Day explains how a movie camera works. Image: IMDb

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.

Keaton on set with co-director Edward Sedgwick. Image: IMDb

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.

Sources

¹San Francisco Silent Film Festival. (Retrieved February 7, 2019.) The Cameraman, by Dennis Harvey.
²Ibid.

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.

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45 comments

  1. It certainly makes one wonder what his career would have been like if he had never signed with MGM. Would he have continued in his brilliance or self-destructed with his own personal problems. Still, I’m so thankful for his work, both in front of and behind the camera.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Probably Buster’s best at MGM… the rest, not so much. They tried to fit him in their own mold, and the results weren’t good, especially the early talkies. Sadly, his career never recovered. However, I enjoy the work he did later with AIP, but I’m probably in the minority on that!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I haven’t seen either of his studio films, and it sounds like a bitter sweet experience. It can still be a good movie but lacking the signature Keaton stunts and charms would make it feel off, for sure! Sad to think how that must have felt for him 😦

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Ah, poor Buster. While the film is quite wonderful and Buster has great chemistry with both his leading lady and the monkey, it stands out as the beginning of the end, Great post and sorry for mentioning the monkey. I keep sneaking that chimp in Sunset Boulevard into my blogs and I am beginning to think I have a thing about them….

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I think Keaton’s genius enabled him to work within the studio’s confines and still produce a comedy classic. Your post about this film–which concerns a camera operator–is timely in light of the Academy Awards’ decision to not present the Cinematography Oscar live on its telecast!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. The Cameraman is a brilliant movie, but his career did go downhill after that (I haven’t seen Spite Marriage yet). Alcoholism also contributed to his downfall. Very sad, because I thought he was better than Chaplin (Chaplin allegedly trimmed Keaton’s part in Limelight because he noticed Keaton was stealing the show from him).

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I am, seriously, very grateful that you posted this. THE CAMERAMAN is good but is not one of my all-time Keaton faves, and I’ve been reluctant to admit that for fear of receiving a stoning from hardcore Keaton buffs. You have perfectly summed up the reasons why I’m hesitant about this movie. As I say, it’s good, but already Keaton’s work has the fingerprints of Big-Studio compromise smudged all over it (the over-dramatic happy ending, etc.) It’s too bad that Keaton’s peak Hollywood years had to end this way.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. It is impressive to see how Buster has been able to pay tribute to cinema and, still, mocking the studios a little bit, even if they wanted to take control over his movie. Unfortunately, it was the end of the silent era and the golden age of Buster… A bit of tragedy in the life of a master of comedies.
    As you said, The Cameraman may not be one of his best movies, but it is like the progressive transition from his best years to his worst.

    Liked by 2 people

    • The Cameraman is a remarkable film given Buster’s situation. Happily, he was able to follow that with Spite Marriage, which I think is the better film of the two.

      Also, I just wanted to say again how much I enjoyed your review of Our Hospitality. I may drop everything and watch it right now! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you very much ! I really appreciate it as I’ve not written that much in English for a while, so I’m glad if my post was able to honor a great movie like Our Hospitality !
        You also convinced me to watch Spite Marriage, which may be one of the last movies made by Buster in the 1920s that I’ve not seen yet.

        Like

  9. Nice post, and I agree. Generally I like The Cameraman, but it always felt a bit “off” to me too. Maybe BK was feeling “off” w/ all the changes, and we are picking up on that.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. It’s so sad what happened to Buster, both personally and career-wise, after he moved to MGM. While I love The Cameraman, there is something slightly off about it compared to his previous films. At least he got some creative control over it.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Great article Ruth! I must admit I love The Cameraman despite everything. But the whole background is a bit sad indeed and MGM unfortunately exploited Keaton. The documentary I wrote about for the the blogahton talks about that in great details.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. I love THE CAMERAMAN–to me, it feels a little different than his silents but not in a bad way. I like seeing Buster among big-budget settings and fancy cinematography–make me proud that the big studio put that kind of care into his first film with them, even in hindsight of what came later. And the bit of sentiment is welcome too.

    Regarding the banana peel scene, I’m wondering if the joke was the ridiculousness of actually slipping on a banana peel, of all things. Maybe it was a meta joke!

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this film–you’re always a welcome part of the Busterthon!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, Lea – and thanks for letting me take part.

      Re: the banana peel…Maybe it was a meta joke. I was expecting a super-clever Buster Keaton pay-off, I suppose.

      The Cameraman is a fine film, and I agree MGM put a lot of effort into it. If you host the blogathon next year, I think I’d choose Spite Marriage, which I really enjoyed.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. “Or like someone had taken a piece of his soul.” What a great way to talk about The Cameraman. Compared to anyone else’s work, it is a wonderful movie, but as you say it seems a off. At least it has Josephine the monkey.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Bittersweet is the perfect word to describe The Cameraman. If we didn’t know that the fall was about to happen, we could enjoy the film as much as Keaton’s previous ones, but knowing that, the film feels bittersweet. However, it still has a few nice gags and Marceline Day is lovely.
    Thanks for the kind comment!
    Kisses!
    Le

    Liked by 2 people

    • Oh yes, Marceline Day is pitch-perfect in this film. I need to see more of her work.

      You make a good point about this film. Because we know what’s coming in Buster K’s life, it makes the movie all the more poignant.

      Like

  15. The Cameraman is forever on my “to watch” list, and after this review I might have to just go out and get it. I think its important to know the context surrounding a movie (or any creative work); it helps you gain a better understanding of the film itself. I’d be interested to carefully watch this movie, keeping in the back of my mind that its an MGM and not a BK-indie.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Good point you made re: context of a movie. The Cameraman is a fine movie, and MGM did their level best. When I watched it, I thought it was the last of Buster K’s independent films and it seemed odd to me. But knowing it’s an MGM film would make a person more forgiving, I think. At any rate, I hope you enjoy it. 🙂

      Like

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