By Thomas Gladysz.
Film history is littered with the stories of stars whose careers were derailed by their studios, and themselves. Orson Welles and Erich von Stroheim are two of the best known examples. Each saw their careers go off the tracks for reasons that had as much to do with corporate control as with each’s personal shortcomings, especially an inability to work within a studio system. Louise Brooks provides a similar example of a career gone wrong, as does Buster Keaton.
Keaton, the silent era comedian who rarely smiled on screen, was at the peak of his career in 1928, the year he made The Cameraman (just released by the Criterion Collection in a deluxe two-disc set). The Cameraman was Keaton’s first film for MGM. Before signing with the studio, he was an independent who had his own production unit and who worked according to his own singular genius. What resulted were a series of brilliant two-reel comedies such as One Week (1920), The Playhouse (1921), Cops (1922), and The Electric House (1922), as well as a string of landmark features including Our Hospitality (1923), The Navigator (1924), Sherlock Jr. (1924), Seven Chances (1925), The General (1926), and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928). Most actors or directors – Keaton was often both – would give anything for even half of those credits. The General, Welles himself once claimed, was the greatest film ever made.
Keaton’s move to MGM was brought about by a number of factors. Foremost among them was his loyalty to his brother-in-law, Joseph Schenck, the one-time head of Buster Keaton Productions and a powerful studio executive. When Schenck himself moved to MGM, he urged Keaton to come along, promising favorable terms. Keaton was reluctant, and worried about getting lost at a bigger studio. At the time, the comedian was vulnerable. He was beginning to drink. His marriage was on shaky ground. And, he had been stung by the release of The General, a close-to-his-heart, expensive misfire that garnered only mixed reviews. With the coming of sound and production costs rising for everyone, Keaton decided to secure his future with MGM. It was, as Keaton described it in his 1958 autobiography, “the worst mistake of my life.”
In the booklet essay that accompanies the new Criterion release, The Cameraman is described as Keaton’s “love letter to the machine that makes movies possible.” In the film, Keaton plays a street photographer who falls for Sally (Marceline Day), a receptionist at a newsreel company. In a bid for her attention, he applies for a job shooting on-the-spot news with the only camera he can afford, a primitive, hand-cranked model he purchases second-hand. His first attempt to shoot footage results in a laughable mess of double-exposed film that looks more Russian avant-garde than news documentary. Still, this everyman-cameraman is determined. In pursuit of love, Keaton’s character must not only prove himself but also do battle with a hotshot cameraman named Stagg (Harold Goodwin) who also has a hankering for Sally. Along the way, Keaton’s cameraman films a ballgame in an empty Yankee Stadium – a brilliant set-piece, a gang war in Chinatown – another bravura scene, and a boat race that proves a turning point.
Typically, Keaton’s working method was more improvisational than planned. As Imogen Sara Smith explains in her exceptional booklet essay about The Cameraman, 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.
The Cameraman was a box office hit. And executives at MGM assumed, incorrectly, that their newly signed star was indeed better off under their supervision. The studio attempted to reign in the chaotic comedian and his time-consuming improvisations: creative control was taken away, and so were Keaton’s team – his dedicated group of gag writers, behind-the-scenes technicians, and supporting actors. MGM even refused to let Keaton do his own stunts. In his autobiography, Keaton lamented: “What I couldn’t understand was why, after I proved my point, the big wheels at MGM would not allow me to have my own unit.” The writing was on the wall. And there would be far more interference on his next film.
His first film for MGM, The Cameraman was Keaton’s last great masterpiece. From then on, things went downhill for the increasingly troubled comedian. Accompanying The Cameraman as part of the Criterion release is Keaton’s second MGM feature, Spite Marriage (1929), the comedian’s last silent. It concerns Elmer, a humble laundry man/pants presser. He idolizes stage actress Trilby Drew (Dorothy Sebastian), and goes to see her every night dressed in the high society clothes left in his care at his dry cleaners.
Trilby, however, is smitten with fellow actor Lionel Benmore (Edward Earle). When Lionel spurns her for the younger Ethyl Norcrosse (Leila Hyams), Trilby impulsively asks the befuddled Elmer to marry her, only to regret it almost immediately. Soon enough, Trilby escapes Elmer, and through a series of coincidences, Elmer finds himself in the hands of criminals and then at sea and then reunited with Trilby. Elmer rescues Trilby, and she re-considers her disdain of him. It’s all comes off a bit labored.
Despite giving it his all, Keaton found it difficult adjusting to MGM’s rigid production methods, especially working with a lower budget and with a more tightly scripted scenario than he did on The Cameraman. As a result, Spite Marriage evidences a kind-of falling off – a dampening of Keaton’s sublime visual-situational physical humor. (Admittedly, those are clunky words for a comedian who was always graceful.) In Spite Marriage, Keaton’s genius breaks through only now and again, enlivening prosaic scenes which seem to lag.
There are more than enough moments in Spite Marriage – especially the backstage scenes at the theatre – to raise it above the average studio comedy. In fact, the film was another profitable hit, receiving rave reviews most everywhere. The Film Daily fairly wrote, “Buster Keaton puts over one of the best he has ever done and has ’em fairly rocking in their seats. Dorothy Sebastian springs a big surprise as a comedienne who can only be compared to Marion Davies.”
The inclusion of Spite Marriage in the Criterion set is a welcome addition for Keaton fans. The film has not been available for some time, last being released (pre-restoration) as part of a now out-of-print TCM Archives collection in 2004. Despite its shortcomings, Spite Marriage is a more than worthwhile film which lends context to Keaton’s experience at MGM.
Despite the difficulties Keaton faced in making The Cameraman, it stands as one of his great films, and one of the finest of any of the late silents. In fact, for years after MGM fired Keaton in 1933, the studio ran the film for its actors as the model of a well constructed comedy, striking so many prints from the original negative that it became damaged and a segment went missing. Years later, when Keaton returned to MGM as a gagman devising bits for new comedians, The Cameraman remained in high standing. Keaton helped out when the studio remade The Cameraman as Watch the Birdie (1950), with Red Skelton.
Criterion’s two-disc release of The Cameraman is exemplary, and the bonus material is insightful in emphasizing how the comedian’s move to MGM led to his eventual downfall. Disc 1 features a dazzling new 4K digital restoration of the film undertaken by the Cineteca di Bologna, the Criterion Collection, and Warner Bros. There is a fine new score by composer Timothy Brock, and an insightful audio commentary from 2004 by Glenn Mitchell, author of A–Z of Silent Film Comedy: An Illustrated Companion.
Also on disc 1 is So Funny It Hurt: Buster Keaton & MGM (2004), a 38-minute documentary by Christopher Bird and Oscar honoree Kevin Brownlow. It’s followed by Time Travelers (2020), a new 16-minute documentary by Daniel Raim which features on location interviews with John Bengtson and Marc Wanamaker; together, the two noted film historians walk the streets of Hollywood looking at the actual sites used by Keaton. Also on disc 1 is The Motion Picture Camera (1979), a 33-minute documentary by cinematographer and film preservationist Karl Malkames, in a 4k restoration. Unrelated to Keaton’s film per se, it surveys the cameras used in the early days of filmmaking.
Disc 2 features Spite Marriage, in a new 2K restoration with its original soundtrack (music plus sound effects, without spoken dialogue). There is also a 2004 commentary by Bengtson and film historian Jeffrey Vance. The latter co-authored Buster Keaton Remembered (2001), with Eleanor Keaton. A bonus short on the second disc features a 15-minute interview with James L. Neibaur, author of The Fall of Buster Keaton: His Films for MGM, Educational Pictures, and Columbia (2010).
Bengtson, author of Silent Echoes: Discovering Early Hollywood Through the Films of Buster Keaton (1999) and similar books on Chaplin and Lloyd, is the “star” of the bonus material. Even when he is not present in the commentaries or documentary shorts, his groundbreaking research into Keaton’s location work and how it informed his filmmaking proves vital – so much so Glenn Mitchell references Bengtson in his commentary on The Cameraman.
This attractive two-disc package includes a 36-page booklet which contains two informative reads, the aforementioned “Man with a Movie Camera,” by Imogen Sara Smith, and “The Worst Mistake of My Life,” an excerpt from Keaton’s 1958 autobiography, My Wonderful World of Slapstick. Smith’s piece is a model essay.
Original prints of The Cameraman have long been lost, and with them, three minutes of footage which no longer exist in any surviving film element. Considering its problematic past, this new restoration looks good; it is consistently sharp, clean, and richly detailed. The English film historian David Robinson wrote that The Cameraman “betrays nothing of the struggle and strain that went into its preparation. It is a lucid, beautifully formed dramatic comedy.” It’s true, and something of an understatement. And so are the words of essayist Imogen Sara Smith, “The Cameraman thus has a special poignancy, like the last rose of summer.” The new Criterion release, itself a cause for celebration, reminds us of Keaton’s singular genius.
Thomas Gladysz writes about early film, and is the author of Louise Brooks: The Persistent Star and other books. He is nearing completion on a two volume work, Around the World with Louise Brooks, an illustrated study of the actress in an international context. Gladysz is also celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Louise Brooks Society, whose website he launched in 1995.