Blu-ray Review: The Cameraman

STUDIO: Criterion | DIRECTOR: Buster Keaton | CAST: Buster Keaton, Marceline Day, Harold Goodwin, Sidney Bracey, Harry Gribbon, Richard Alexander
RELEASE DATE: 6/16/20 | PRICE: DVD $22.99, Blu-ray $27.99
BONUSES: Audio commentary from 2004 by author Glenn Mitchell; full Keaton feature  – Spite Marriage (1929); a 2004 commentary for that film by historians John Bengtson and Jeffrey Vance; featurette about Cameraman locations with Bengtson and film historian Marc Wanamaker; “So Funny It Hurt: Buster Keaton & MGM,” documentary by film historians Kevin Brownlow and Christopher Bird; interview with writer James L. Neibaur; 1979 short “The Motion Picture Camera”
SPECS: NR | 69 min. | Silent comedy | 1.37:1 | mono

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio  | Video  | Overall 

All the supplements contained in this impressive package emphasize how signing with MGM in 1928 was Buster Keaton’s single “worst mistake [he] ever made” (to use his words). Thus, the two wonderful silent features spotlighted here — The Cameraman (1928) and Spite Marriage (1929) can accurately be called “the last two great Buster Keaton films.” Of course, that sounds a bit negative, particularly given the fact that he kept on acting in film until his death in 1966.

But the print and video pieces contained here don’t bandy about the subject. Although one commenter notes that some of Keaton’s later two-reelers are indeed funnier than they’re thought to be, it’s also clear that The Cameraman was the last time he had any autonomy at all as a filmmaker. The man who handcrafted timeless jewels like Sherlock Jr., The Navigator and The General was little more than a comic actor with a talent for slapstick after 1928.

Although it was Buster’s first film made at MGM, The Cameraman does continue in the mode of the films he self-produced up to that time. It also offers amazing “history lessons” about the locations it was shot in and the mechanical process of newsreel filmmaking in 1928.

The plot, which disappears for about 25 of the 69 minutes (but we’re not complaining), finds Buster becoming a newsreel cameraman to impress a woman (Marceline Day) who is in love with an egocentric, mean-spirited cameraman (Harold Goodwin). Buster courts her carefully but, in true movie comedy style, it’s the hijinks of a playful monkey that finally brings the couple together.

Spite Marriage, which has a far more linear plot, finds Buster in an ultra-melancholy mood as a pants presser who is smitten with an actress (Dorothy Sebastian) She marries Buster impulsively to spite her handsome (also mean-spirited) costar (Edward Earle). The conclusion of the film, where Buster and the actress are alone in a ship, may be very reminiscent of The Navigator, but it is also quite charming.

The commentary tracks on the films (both from 2004) offer much behind-the-scenes info on the pictures and Buster’s crumbling grasp on his screen image at the time of production. The very jovial Glenn Mitchell provides background for The Cameraman, noting that MGM producers conceived of the film because William Randolph Hearst owned the newsreel division of MGM, and it was assured that if a film with an MGM newsreel cameraman as a hero was made, it would receive much publicity in the Hearst press.

Mitchell also clarifies, for those fascinated by NYC and LA history, which sequences in the film were shot on Manhattan streets and which were shot in or near L.A. landmarks. The L.A. locations are also the subject of a visual supplement included here, where film historians John Bengtson and Marc Wanamaker show what the locations currently look like.

In their commentary for Spite Marriage, writers Bengtson and Jeffrey Vance discuss the fact that Buster wanted the film to be a talkie but he was overruled by the studio heads. Vance, who wrote a memoir with Keaton’s widow Eleanor, goes so far as to give us Buster’s personal stats at one point in the commentary — he declares that Buster was 5’5”, ordinarily weight 140 pounds, wore a 7½ shoe and a 6 7/8-sized hat (!).

The best online supplement included in the package is a 2004 TCM-produced doc, “So Funny It Hurt: Buster Keaton and MGM,” by Christopher Bird and the esteemed silent film historian Kevin Brownlow. Narrated by James Karen, the doc is specifically about the ways in which the decision to work at MGM ruined Buster’s career (and his life).

The studio demanded that Buster’s films have a supervisor and a finished script, whereas Buster wanted neither, as he considered a script as a blueprint for a film, but he still needed room to improvise new gags on the set.

It is noted that, with The Cameraman, Keaton found himself operating in the same fashion as he had earlier. But, with Spite Marriage and the later MGM pictures, he was watched over by the studio in every aspect, including the fact that he wasn’t allowed to do his own stunts (which were, of course, a large part of his comedy).

Most intriguing of all is a discussion of the parties he had in a “land yacht” (a vehicle that looked like a double-decker bus) in the early Thirties when he was an alcoholic and was having extra-marital affairs. The saddest moments in the doc are sequences from Keaton’s MGM features, where he is visibly drunk on-screen.

 The “Brownlow touch” with film documentaries is most evident when Buster’s original comic moments are deftly intercut with the recreations of these routines in the later films of the Marx Brothers and Red Skelton (for whom Keaton wrote gags — some of Skelton’s vehicles were note-for-note remakes of Keaton’s features).

 On the whole, the supplements deliver a rather saddening message (“Watch the last gasp of a comedy visionary!”), but the two features are so entertaining that they counterbalance the more tragic reflections contained in the supplements.

Buy or Rent The Cameraman

About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”