THE CAMERAMAN (Buster Keaton, Edward Sedgwick, 1928)

The same year he made his final masterpiece, Steamboat Bill, Jr., Buster Keaton forfeited his independence by signing up with M-G-M, the studio that had butchered Stroheim’s Greed (1924) and routinely practiced embalming “respectable” material. Uneven, The Cameraman, co-directed by Edward Sedgwick and (uncredited) Keaton, emerged from this new business arrangement. Alas, Keaton’s downfall was not entirely the fault of the studio. Keaton fans (such as I) must admit that a good deal of Keaton’s charm relied on his youth, and (in 1928) his playing parts ten years his junior was beginning to strain credulity. Associated with this, how long could he go on playing characters painfully out to prove themselves? Soon after, sound exposed his voice as arid—a needless aural repetition of his marvelous deadpan expression.
     Already there is no getting away from M-G-M: the girl with whom Buster falls in love, Sally, works for the M-G-M newsreel department while he runs a one-man tintype operation, capturing clients on the street. The film opens with an hilariously inflated visual ode to newsreel journalism; against such heroism Buster’s work seems puny indeed. But Sally encourages Buster in his determination to become a newsreel photographer himself. Hearing there is a fire, Buster rushes out with his movie camera and boards a fire truck—into the fire station! At an empty Yankee Stadium, he asks the one person there, “Aren’t the Yankees playing today?” “Sure. In St. Louis.” Buster’s off to a losing start, but Keaton’s film is off to a good one.
     But it is headed downhill. A date with Sally, which includes a community swimming pool, is prolonged and wretchedly unfunny. The entire romance in fact feels forced.
     Buster does prove himself by solely capturing on film a Tong war in Chinatown.

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