Within the comedy section of the Silent Film Era of the 1900s-1920s, there are a few names which standout, escaping from not just the conversations of the educated or cinephile circles but within the zeitgeist. Actors like Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Stan Laurel pre-Laurel & Hardy, and, of course, Buster Keaton. Each of these actors made their success by bringing their talents of vaudeville to the big screen in situations ranging from profoundly innocuous (Lloyd’s Safety Last!) to the socially challenging (Chaplin’s The Kid). Keaton’s 1928 silent film The Cameraman slides in between these two ranges as a film that remains wholly entertaining nearly a century later, although the context through which it’s viewed has certainly shifted. Given the 4K digital restoration treatment from Criterion, The Cameraman is dressed up and ready to greet a new generation of cinephiles with a presentation that’s not only gorgeous to look at but to listen to as well. But what really separates this release from other home releases of late is the collection of supplemental materials that is a true embarrassment of riches. To paraphrase Poprika Founder Darryl Mansel, Criterion’s bringing the business.
In The Cameraman, Buster Keaton plays a tintype cameraman who decides to switch from photography to moving pictures in order to get the attention of Sally (Marceline Day), a woman working at news service MGM Newsreel. After a series of mishaps, he gets his chance to prove to her, and himself, that he’s got what it takes to make it with the new tech, but after so many mistakes, will it be too late?
With the current “conversation” surrounding Gone with the Wind’s removal from streaming service HBO Max, it seems important to remind folks that films don’t happen in a vacuum. Like all stories, it’s born out of someone’s perception of the world. The original novel of Gone with the Wind was published in 1936, almost four years before the film was released, and to argue that the film’s removal from a streaming service due to a change in social perspective is censorship is ignorant at best and purposefully malicious at worst. Just as the films of today (Da 5 Bloods, The Invisible Man, The High Note) are all indicative of the world now, so is the case with Gone with the Wind. To watch it without understanding the context of the era from a socio-political standpoint is to ignore the film’s true history. One cannot truly appreciate art without considering its own perspective and bias. This is a long-winded way of bringing up that Keaton’s The Cameraman requires a certain context before watching as it presents several stereotypes, including those of Italian and Asian cultures and peoples. The film does not possess a particular comment on these people, but the presentation does hold weight in how audiences today will receive the film. For instance, when Buster goes on a “date” with Sally, they head to a community pool and head to their respective restrooms to change. Now, the film plays on Buster’s reticence compared to the other male figures’ temerity for the comedy, so when Buster finds himself accidentally sharing a tiny changing room with another man, the contrasting demeanors are humorous. As the two men jockey for a hook to place their clothes as they undress, each one getting caught in the other’s clothes, it’s truly a comedy of escalating errors to behold. The strange thing is, it all could’ve easily be deescalated when the second man stepped in, found Buster, and left. It certainly wouldn’t have been comical but it also wouldn’t have continued a stereotype about Italians as the man’s response was one of deathly violence first. Later, Buster finds himself in the middle of a Tong War during a Chinese celebration. What is once a peaceful event with lanterns, bunting, and dragon dance literally erupts into a hailstorm of gunfire as every person in the festival seems to brandish a firearm. This is, again, played for laughs as Buster attempts to capture the event with his camera, but why is it funny? It’s never explained or set-up as to why there’s turmoil within the community, rather, it’s presented as expected and understood. This sets up a tunnel of subtle racism running throughout the film. Not from Buster, mind you, but from the other characters within the film.
Running at 69 minutes, The Cameraman doesn’t allow for any kind of explanation or set-up that doesn’t involve some kind of physical stunt from Keaton. As such, the sense of the story is one we’re meant to accept, but, yet again, why? This is why context matters and why HBO Max’s approach of removing Gone with the Wind until they can create an introduction to offer said context is so important in an era of digital streaming largesse. It’s no longer about creating content or having access to content. We have that. It’s important to lay the groundwork for why the content matters. Most streaming services (Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu) don’t include any kind of supplemental content to create or establish context with their material. Disney+ does offer this with some of their films (Avengers: Endgame was the first place to see several deleted scenes not available until the physical release hit stores) and Criterion does it as well with theirs. Thankfully, Criterion also provides this supplemental content with their physical releases, too. Because bonus materials are something that cinephiles tend to favor over casual movie fans (hat tip to Disney for always including beaucoup bonus features with their animated films), many home releases are starting to pull back on how much additional content to provide which means a paltry “making of” featurette and gallery photos for some, and for others, a gag reel and some brief interviews with the cast. As a wonderful outlier, the home release of It Chapter Two included a 70+ minute short film and Tigers Are Not Afraid offers viewers a lengthy Q&A from TIFF 2019 and more. This is the camp that The Cameraman belongs in as Criterion pulled together audio commentary, four separate documentaries, and a new interview focused on Keaton, and a 2K restoration of another Buster Keaton film Spite Marriage. You want context? How about an exploration of Keaton’s tumultuous relationship with MGM hosted by Keaton’s old friend actor James Karen. Or an in-depth look at how Keaton used real locations in Los Angeles to substitute for Manhattan, enabling viewers now to get to know places long since lost. Or what about the history of the motion picture camera itself? In summation, Criterion’s offering context for days.
When it’s all said and done, The Cameraman may be an obvious relic of a time when sexism and casual racism was acceptable, but, when watched as a piece of cinema history, it remains an entertaining work. Keaton is, as expected, charming as the nebbish Buster, constantly screwing up, yet you root for him all the same. He draws you in with a performance that is entirely innocent and well-meaning, even robustly naive. From this, the comedy takes its shape and his physical performance brings it to life. Even so many years later, Keaton’s gag of running to meet Sally at her place while she’s still trying to talk to him on the phone is hilarious and charming. Watching Buster struggle with the changing room occupant may go on a bit long, but it’s just a series of escalations that will have you chuckling even now. There’s even a bit with Josephine the monkey that had me actually jump out of my seat in panic, a combination of great staging and an awareness that animal treatment on film has a tenuous reputation. For her part, Day imbues Sally with an awareness of the conflict in social norms: the poor, clumsy man who she likes or the wealthy, confident man who woos her. Day gives Sally more agency than a mere love interest, allowing Sally to occasionally be the partner who sets up Keaton’s jokes. In the end, though, it is Keaton’s film as his performance is the driving force in every scene. Between his physicality and commitment to his bits, there’s no wonder his performances still resonate today.
The Cameraman Special Features
- New 4K digital restoration undertaken by the Cineteca di Bologna, the Criterion Collection, and Warner Bros.
- New score by composer Timothy Brock, conducted by Brock and performed by the orchestra of the Teatro Comunale di Bologna in 2020, presented in uncompressed stereo on the Blu-ray.
- Audio commentary from 2004 featuring Glenn Mitchell, author of A–Z of Silent Film Comedy: An Illustrated Companion.
- Spite Marriage (1929), Buster Keaton’s next feature for MGM following The Cameraman, in a new 2K restoration, with a 2004 commentary by film historians John Bengtson and Jeffrey Vance. (1:16:17)
- Time Travelers, a new documentary by Daniel Raim featuring interviews with Bengtson and film historian Marc Wanamaker (16:44)
- So Funny It Hurt: Buster Keaton & MGM, a 2004 documentary by film historians Kevin Brownlow and Christopher Bird. (38:22)
- The Motion Picture Camera (1979), a documentary by A.S.C. cinematographer and film preservationist Karl Malkames, in a 4k restoration. (33:18)
- New interview with James L. Neibaur, author of The Fall of Buster Keaton: His Films for MGM, Educational Pictures, and Columbia. (14:09)
- An essay by film critic Imogen Sara Smith.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection on June 16th, 2020.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.