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CAMERAMAN, THE (director: Edward Sedgwick; screenwriters: Clyde Bruckman/Lew Lipton/Richard Shayer; cinematographer: Elgin Lessley/Reggie Lanning; editor: Hugh Wynn; cast: Buster Keaton (Luke “Buster” Shannon), Marceline Day (Sally), Harold Gowin (Stagg, Buster’s newsreel rival), Sidney Bracey (the Boss), Harry Gribbon (the Cop), Edward Brophy (the Man in Dressing Room), Dick Alexander (the Big Sea Lion), Josephine the monkey; Runtime: 78; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Buster Keaton; MGM; 1928-silent)
“Studio interference damaged the film but could not destroy it.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Remains a classic despite Buster Keaton signing away his independence to join the studio system at conservative MGM. Studio interference damaged the film but could not destroy it, but it signals a future fall from grace: many Keaton fans (including yours truly) consider The Cameraman to be his last major work. Buster said signing with MGM was the biggest mistake he ever made, even though paid a handsome $3,000 a week he no longer could operate freely. This film received critical acclaim and turned in the biggest box office he ever had for a film.

It’s written by Clyde Bruckman, Lew Lipton and Richard Shayer, and helmed by Edward Sedgwick (“Parlor, Bedroom and Bath”/”Free and Easy”/”Doughboys”), who allowed Buster to improvise and for the most part do his own thing (something that wasn’t to happen again at MGM).

Buster plays the nebbish Manhattan tintype street photographer who falls madly in love with pretty MGM newsreel office girl, Sally (Marceline Day), he sees in the street. He pawns his camera for a movie one, as he tries to get a job in her studio shooting newsreels to win Sally over. She feels sorry for the little guy and encourages him to follow the regular newsreel photogs to the scene of a fire. But Buster goofs up and never reaches the fire. Her bully suitor, Stagg (Harold Gowin), laughs at Buster for being such a buffoon.

The first half of the film was filled with physical sight gags: Buster clowning around in an empty Yankee Stadium while pretending in a pantomime routine to ape all the ballplayers, breaking the wall to his apartment while trying to get the dimes out of his piggy bank, having the outraged beat officer think he’s a bit daffy but the officer is unable to collar the tricky little guy, having all kinds of trouble getting into his bathing suit in a cramped dressing room he’s forced to share with a large man while out on a date with Sally to an indoor swimming pool and winding up wearing the stranger’s oversized one, and being the third man out when Stagg comes by with a convertible to steal his date and then is forced to sit in the rumble seat in the rain.

In the second half of the film, it comes to life and the comedy becomes more hilarious and genuine. Sally tips Buster off that during the holiday parade celebration in Chinatown there’s the possibility of a Tong war breaking out. But while Buster was rushing to the scene he banged into an organ grinder and knocked his monkey unconscious. A cop forces him to buy the monkey. Buster is the only newsreel photographer at the scene and gets the whole war on film despite being in great danger, but when he turns the film over to the MGM newsreel boss (Sidney Bracey) he discovers the monkey stole the film. Downcast over losing his girl to Stagg and not allowed to be back at the office, he goes to the beach at Westport to film a regatta and witnesses Sally and Stagg are in a speed boat accident. Forsaking his camera, he jumps from his rowboat to save the unconscious girl. The monkey keeps the camera rolling. The next day Buster sends the film to the office as a gift and when the boss sees it with Stagg and Sally, expecting to get a few laughs, he’s shocked to see the missing Tong war film–returned by the monkey–and the film also shows Buster’s heroic rescue of Sally while the cowardly Stagg only thought of saving himself. The rescue part filmed by the monkey is called by the boss the greatest bit of film-making he’s ever seen and Buster wins the girl, gets a newsreel cameraman’s job at the studio and accidentally walks with Sally to the front of the procession to great cheers as the city is honoring Lindbergh with a ticker-tape parade.

It was remade as Watch the Birdie in 1948 starring Red Skelton with an uncredited Keaton supervising the gags.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”