The Cameraman signaled the end of an era for Buster Keaton, the launch of a promising new one, and the dawn of a painful decline. It was another successful Keaton comedy, made in the informal yet efficient manner he’d grown accustomed to yet unaware he’d never be allowed to work that way again. It heralded a shift so detrimental to his art and career that when Keaton wrote his autobiography several decades later, he titled the relevant chapter “The Worst Mistake of My Life.”
Not that you could tell anything was going wrong from The Cameraman (1928), which Buster considered “one of my pet pictures.” In it, he plays a tintype photographer who yearns to be a newsreel lensman, if only because the girl he likes (Marceline Day) is a secretary in MGM’s NewYork City newsreel office. Keaton and his writers usually dreamed up their own ideas, but this one came about because he’d just signed on to MGM, one of whose biggest stockholders was William Randolph Hearst. Someone at the studio figured the story hook was a sure way to get even more coverage in Hearst’s newspapers than usual. “I had no objection, because the idea also presented wonderful opportunities for good gags,” Keaton later said.
Production was relatively hitch-less, although the decision to shoot on location meant having to clear excited Manhattanites every time the “Great Stone Face” was recognized. (They also had to re-shoot some of the climactic chase amid a Chinatown “Tong war” upon realizing that test audiences couldn’t accept that Buster’s protagonist abandoned his camera even for a neck-saving moment.) The Cameraman was a hit, too, getting Keaton’s MGM tenure off to a fine start.
He recounts its creation and aftermath in greater detail than any other film in his 1960 autobiography, My Wonderful World of Slapstick. Not because it was such a personal favorite, but because it represented the last time he was allowed to work with the freedom he’d enjoyed to date, first as part of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s company (by which he entered the movies in 1917), then as independent maker of his own starring vehicles in his own production unit under brother-in-law Joseph Schenck. When Schenck moved to MGM, he urged Buster to come along, promising highly favorable terms.
But the comedian was reluctant. He was worried about becoming “lost” in a much bigger studio environ. Friendly colleagues Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, who guarded their independence even more vehemently than Keaton had, strongly advised him against the move. But he was loyal to Schenck who had “never steered me wrong in his life until then. I do not think he meant to that time, either. … In the end I gave in.” Insert ominous drumroll here.
The Metro terms were lucrative, and, while Louis B. Mayer was no fan of what he considered low comedy, “boy wonder” Irving Thalberg was a personal friend and a reassuring advocate—to a point. “Brilliant though he was, Irving Thalberg could not accept the way a comedian like me built his stories,” Keaton wrote later. “His mind was too orderly for our harum-scarum, catch-as-catch-can, gag-grabbing method. Our way of operating would have seemed hopelessly mad to him. But believe me, it was the only way. Somehow some of the frenzy and hysteria of our breathless, impromptu comedy-building got into our movies and made them exciting.”
That “only way,” however, was not MGM’s way. Immediately he was beset by dozens of staff writers—not his cozy old brainstorming gang of two or three—jostling to get something into the script. Keaton had never even had a proper script before. “We didn’t work by one,” he recalled. “We just got to talking about a story and laying out all the material that we could think of, and then got it all put together. … Anytime something unexpected happened and we liked it, we were liable to spend days shooting in and around that.” Thus had developed some of cinema’s greatest sight gags. Working with close-knit, likeminded collaborators who were always on call—not on the studio clock.
No such whimsies were permitted at Metro, where directors were directors, and writers and comedians just expected to show up and be funny. “With so much talk going on, so many conferences, so many brains at work, I began to lose faith for the first time in my own ideas,” Keaton lamented. He’d been left more or less to his own devices on The Cameraman. “What I couldn’t understand was why, after I proved my point [delivering a hit film], the big wheels at MGM would not allow me to have my own unit.”
There was much more interference on the following year’s Spite Marriage. As another box-office triumph, it only proved to the executives that they indeed knew the best way to make movies, Buster’s or anyone else’s. From their standpoint, his desire for creative freedom made no sense at all. The Cameraman’s longest sustained bit could hardly have been more economical—just our pint-sized hero and a burly stranger struggling to don swimsuits in a minuscule changing room at the public baths. Why indulge him by bankrolling the mind-boggling, epically scaled gags of The General or The Navigator when the public liked him just as well on stricter budgets and schedules?
In the coming years, Keaton became further exasperated by the increasingly unsuitable material MGM thrust on him. And his personal unhappiness was compounded by the bitter collapse of his first marriage and his worst struggles with the bottle. Unlike many silent stars, Keaton—with his infinite joy in the mechanics of filmmaking—welcomed transitioning to the “talkies.” Just as he had preferred to use as few title cards as possible in his silents, he continued to “look for action laughs, not dialogue laughs” in the sound era, another frontier on which his “fight with the brass” continued.
Despite his continued popularity, Keaton was fired in 1933—purportedly because drinking had begun to affect his work. He returned to two-reelers (most painfully at Columbia, where his subtle style clashed with Three Stooges specialist Jules White’s insistence on violent knockabout). Later, he returned to MGM as a gagman, devising routines for new comedians, most pleasurably for Red Skelton who remade The Cameraman as 1950’s Watch the Birdie.
Unlike Chaplin and Lloyd, Keaton hadn’t become a millionaire, had never owned the rights to his own films. Yet he preferred continuing to work, in whatever capacity, to bemoaning paths not taken. A third marriage was long and happy, his joy at a new generation’s discovery of silent comedy unabashed. “I think I’ve had the happiest and luckiest of lives,” he wrote in 1960. He died in 1966 at age 70, just a few weeks after the end of one of the busiest professional years of his life.
He didn’t live quite long enough to see The Cameraman’s revival. It had become nearly a lost film before a print was discovered in 1968, then a much better one in 1991. One thing that fortunately remains lost is the worst single idea MGM ever tried to levy onto Keaton. They wanted the film to end with a sacrilege: Buster smiling. That scene was shot then test-screened. In this case, when the public spoke, they were adamant, and they were right. There would be no grinning Great Stone Face at the end of The Cameraman, or ever.
Presented at SFSFF 2012 with live music by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra