Buster Keaton’s last great film, The Cameraman (1928), is his love letter to the machine that makes movies possible. He plays a humble street photographer who is smitten with a pretty secretary and follows her back to the newsreel office where she works. There, with catlike curiosity, he inspects a movie camera, trying the crank and the latch of the film chamber, fingers itching to delve into the mysteries of its shutters and sprockets. The girl, played by the lovely Marceline Day, is a prize he dreams of winning, but the camera—like the locomotive in Keaton’s masterpiece, The General (1926), or the ocean liner in The Navigator (1924)—is his real costar, at once an ornery antagonist and an alter ego.
In this scene, Keaton reenacts a turning point in his own life. In 1917, he had been a twenty-one-year-old vaudeville veteran who had never set foot on a film set when comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle invited him to visit Colony Studios on East Forty-Eighth Street in New York and play a scene in the short comedy he was shooting, The Butcher Boy. Keaton later recalled that the first thing he wanted to do when he got to the studio was to “tear that camera to pieces.” Drawn to all things mechanical, he felt a burning need to know exactly how the film strip traveled through the machine, how the operator controlled the speed, what happened in the cutting room, how the film was assembled and projected. He and the movies had been born the same year, 1895, and from this first encounter he saw where his future lay; he tore up a lucrative theater contract, took a job with Arbuckle’s company, and never looked back. It helped that the camera adored him too. As soon as he stepped in front of the lens, his lucid movements and Swiss-watch comic timing, his astounding athleticism and the subtle expressiveness of his beautiful face, made him a natural creature of cinema. Arbuckle, who became Keaton’s mentor and best friend, said his protégé “lived in the camera.” He took to moviemaking with a single-minded passion, pouring himself into his films the way fuel becomes flame, leaving nothing behind except light.
In The Cameraman, Buster rushes to a pawnshop and trades in his tintype camera for an old, beat-up, hand-cranked Pathé; slinging the tripod over his shoulder and turning his cap back to front like the pros, he takes to the streets filming everything in sight. The results are inadvertently avant-garde: double exposures, tilted angles, shots running backward. Crafting these neophyte mistakes was obviously a lark for Keaton, whose actual technical mastery gave him the same seemingly effortless control over images that he had over his acrobatic body. But The Cameraman, the first film he made at MGM, was the last time he would enjoy any real control or autonomy as an artist. Since 1920, he had lived a filmmaker’s dream, with his own independent studio, Buster Keaton Productions, dedicated crew of gag writers and technicians, and almost complete creative freedom, granted by his producer, Joseph Schenck. These conditions allowed him to make movies in his own image: his performances and his films have the same mixture of restraint and wild invention; the same clean, functional elegance; the same sublime understatement. The idyll ended in 1928, when, after several features in a row lost money, Schenck shut the studio and sold his contract to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Devastated, Keaton went along with the move reluctantly, and would always call it the worst mistake of his life.
Predictably, after the liberty he’d enjoyed—to improvise without a written script, to obey only the dictates of his own vision and his rigorous perfectionism—Keaton felt stymied at MGM. There were “too many cooks,” he complained, meddling and foisting bad material on him, as well as an unwieldy bureaucracy in which “you had to requisition a toothpick in triplicate.” The studio heads ballyhooed their popular new star but failed to comprehend his singular brand of comedy, and with the coming of sound they pushed him into a noisy, hectic style loaded with groan-worthy puns and strained wordplay that he despised. Not only did they misjudge his comic style, they also misunderstood his screen character: because he was short and didn’t smile, they saw him as a sad clown, a pathetic shrimp; because his comedy was physical, not verbal, they pegged him as a thick-witted dope. (Ironically, during these same years, MGM’s renowned still photographers—George Hurrell, Clarence Sinclair Bull, and Ruth Harriet Louise—churned out glamorous portraits immortalizing his dark, sculpted handsomeness and brooding mystery.)
“Keaton had an unerring instinct for how to capture each scene in the most effective, economical, and humorous way, with beauty as a by-product.”
The greatest tragedy of the move to MGM was that the studio executives saw Keaton as only a performer; they refused to recognize that he was also a filmmaker. Allergic to artistic pretensions and egotistical auteurs, he had often taken less credit than he deserved, but, by all accounts, he was the primary director on all of his independent shorts and features, as well as coming up with much of the material and cutting the final prints himself. In the twenties, he was rarely acclaimed as a director, but he was by far the most cinematic of the silent clowns, the most artful with his camera, and the most interested in the medium of film. He had an unerring instinct for how to capture each scene in the most effective, economical, and humorous way, with beauty as a by-product. He innovated camera effects as confounding as the magic tricks he’d marveled at as a boy in vaudeville, and took cinema as his subject as early as Sherlock Jr. (1924), in which he parses the dreamlike nature of films—or is it the filmlike nature of dreams? To the end of his life, Keaton never stopped thinking like a director. In 1965, he was interviewed at the Venice Film Festival for Sight & Sound, and in the midst of discussing his preference for unbroken long shots, he began describing how he would shoot the hotel lobby where they were talking—where he would place the camera, how he would construct the scene. It is enough to break your heart; he had not directed a feature film in more than three decades.The Cameraman thus has a special poignancy, like the last rose of summer. Keaton fought passionately to make the film his way, and mostly won his battles. The studio took his original story concept and presented him with an overcomplicated script, thwarting his preference for simple plots that gave him “space to move around” and find laughs organically. Going over the head of producer Lawrence Weingarten (who never forgave him), he pleaded with production chief Irving Thalberg and, for the first and last time at MGM, got permission to scrap the script. He tossed out subplots, axed unnecessary characters, and found several of the film’s funniest sequences by ad-libbing on set—his lovely solo pantomime of a baseball game in an empty Yankee Stadium, the calmly methodical demolition of his bedroom in an effort to open his piggy bank, and his comic pas de deux with irascible fireplug Edward Brophy as they try to change into swimsuits in a cramped cubicle. (Brophy was a unit manager, tapped for this scene when inspiration struck; he would go on to a prolific career as a character actor.) Also for the last time at MGM, Keaton worked with some of his cherished team: technical director and set builder Fred Gabourie, long his right-hand man; writer Clyde Bruckman; and ace camera operator Elgin Lessley. After a bumpy start to their relationship, the assigned director, Edward Sedgwick, came to appreciate his star’s mastery of filmmaking and became a friend and laissez-faire conspirator. When crowds in New York, attracted by Keaton’s celebrity, proved a frustrating obstacle to location shooting, he also got Thalberg’s permission to return and finish the movie in Los Angeles.
“Working freely in silence one final time, Keaton creates in The Cameraman what James Agee called ‘beauties of comic motion.’ ”
Mostly pruned of the distractions added by MGM scriptwriters, The Cameraman’s story follows the standard arc of a Keaton movie: galvanized by love, the meek hero transcends his klutziness, draws on unsuspected reserves of courage and ingenuity, proves himself in a difficult task, and wins the girl. Keaton’s films are always deliberately paced, building from a low-key opening to a grand-scale finale—here, a “Tong War” in Chinatown that Buster films with all the intrepidity of a battlefield photographer. (This sequence, it must be said, is regrettably dated, trafficking in yellow-menace stereotypes of sinister, inscrutable Asians.) In the end, he makes good, but the external signifiers of success always seem anticlimactic compared with his private transformation.
Working freely in silence one final time, Keaton creates in The Cameraman what James Agee called “beauties of comic motion,” setting the pace of scenes with his own faultless inner rhythm, translating thought into action without the slightest need for words. For a simple sequence in which Buster awaits a hoped-for phone call from Sally, the girl he loves, Keaton constructed a cutaway staircase and an elevator for the camera. When he careens down the steps, upon hearing his rooming house’s phone ring, or trudges dejectedly back up, the camera follows, sympathetically adopting his tempo. At last, the call comes, and he waits only to hear the words “My date’s off, so . . .” before dropping the receiver, dashing out, and launching into one of his trademark sprints up Fifth Avenue, the camera racing to keep up. It is always an exhilarating joy to watch Keaton run flat-out, his compact, streamlined body working like the surging pistons of train wheels. Dodging cars, vaulting over curbs, he hurtles like an arrow toward its target, skidding to a halt beside Sally just as she is hanging up the phone in perplexity. He gallantly apologizes for being late.
When he gallops out of a room in a panic and shifts seamlessly into a debonair saunter, or slips on a banana peel and goes from fully upright to flat on his back without passing through any intervening positions, Keaton prompts laughter but also something else, the rare blend of astonishment and satisfaction that comes from seeing an action perfectly accomplished—even a pratfall, executed with such precision and purity of focus, becomes a glimpse of transfiguring grace. Given a physical riddle to solve—What happens when two men try to undress in a room barely big enough for one? What do you do if you find yourself accidentally naked in a public pool?—he inscribes the answer on space, trusting the intelligence of his body and his instinct for pithy visual narrative.
With these gifts, Keaton was almost impossible to upstage, but he readily partnered with one scene-stealer: Josephine, the organ-grinder’s monkey who spends the latter part of The Cameraman perching on his shoulder, scrambling up and down his body, and embracing his Great Stone Face with her tiny hands. Keaton’s affectionate rapport with animals is evident throughout his films, which he filled with dogs, horses, bears, bunnies, and one very charismatic cow. A remarkable thespian, Josephine manifests guilt, gleeful mischief, fear, and wooziness more legibly than some human actors. She and Keaton became devoted pals, sharing peanuts and bananas as they relaxed on the set. On-screen, the simian sidekick both helps and hinders him, taking over the fickle, maddening yet lovable role of the more peppery love interests in Keaton’s earlier films.
MGM was delighted with The Cameraman, though the higher-ups there drew the wrong lessons from its success, congratulating themselves with the condescending belief that it demonstrated that Keaton was even better under the studio’s guidance. Famously, for years they ran the film for other comedians as an example of a perfectly constructed comedy, striking so many prints from the original negative that it became damaged, and a segment remains missing. The lost scenes followed Buster’s first, hapless efforts to shoot newsreel footage: filming a hotel doorman he mistakes for an admiral, launching himself into the harbor along with a yacht, double-exposing scenes so that a parade marches up the Hudson and a battleship sails down Fifth Avenue.
The catastrophe at MGM was perhaps inevitable. Keaton’s persona, screen presence, and sense of humor were so far out of the ordinary that he was like a visitor from another planet—beloved but also baffling, the sphinx of silent comedy. In his heyday, his deadpan was often misconstrued as a frozen blank; in fact, he could communicate any emotion with his huge, speaking eyes and eloquent body, though his feelings are always subdued by his stoic reticence. The juxtaposition of this solemn, otherworldly face and his antic, knockabout body creates a fascinating incongruity. In this tension between slapstick clowning and enigmatic gravity lies the essential paradox of Keaton’s art: funny and serious at the same time, fusing gags with dramatic narrative and logic with absurdity. It is hardly surprising that when such a sui generis artist was fed into the entertainment factory farm of MGM, this precarious balance of opposites would collapse, and he would end up fatally warped by the effort to force his square peg into the studio’s round hole.
In The Cameraman, however, we can still see the dynamic interplay between two sides of his character, his unflagging persistence and his graceful adaptation to the universe. He is warm and cool, determined and detached, fervent and reserved. On the one hand, he stands “at right angles to the world,” as Elizabeth Bishop wrote, perpetually at odds with physical objects, stubbornly fighting his way against the winds of adversity. On the other hand, he finds unexpected interludes of harmony, when his impassive, Zen acceptance of the forces around him leads to miraculous moments of ease. Separated from his date on an overcrowded double-decker bus, he clambers down from the top and perches on the fender, chatting suavely with her through the window. When, during the Tong War, the scaffolding he is standing on collapses beneath him, he rides it to the ground for a perfect, fluid crane shot. When two legs of his tripod are shot off, he pragmatically ensures that the third will be hit so it will balance again. In the midst of this human hurricane of violence, he is as calm and unflustered as the eye of the storm.
On the whole, however, Keaton’s character is more emotionally vulnerable here than usual, and The Cameraman’s story treads closer to the edge of sentiment. In his independent movies, the romances were swiftly telegraphed, their sweetness often tempered with a wry dash of bitters, but here ample time is given to Buster’s ardent courtship of Sally, replete with mooning and pining. When he first spots her, as a crowd is pushed back by a passing parade and his face is suddenly thrust into her hair, he shuts his eyes in swooning bliss, as though overcome by her perfume. In the film’s dramatic climax, when he saves Sally from drowning only to have his caddish rival claim credit for the rescue, Keaton demonstrates that he could have wrung our hearts if he’d wanted to. Alone on the beach, he slumps to his knees in abject defeat, the tight curve of his back containing the shock of sudden heartbreak. The sight is almost unbearable, but it lasts only a split second before the shot pulls back to reveal the payoff—Josephine the monkey cranking away at the camera, capturing it all.
There is a gratifying resonance to the ending of The Cameraman, in which the protagonist is vindicated by the film he has shot, which provides irrefutable evidence of his skill and bravery. In the same way, Keaton’s movies, many of which were once believed lost, survived to bear witness to his genius: it is all there in black and white. Thanks to the camera, he got the last laugh.