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The Cameraman

Submitted by knwacket on Tue, 03/17/2015 - 6:57pm

Widely considered the last great work of Buster Keaton’s career, this week’s silent film The Cameraman is the final entry in the Film Society’s Comedy series. Keaton plays a tintype photographer who falls for an MGM newsreel receptionist, Sally (Marceline Day). In order to win her affection, he buys an old camera and goes to work for the newsreel department, where his inexperience leads to a host of hilarious mishaps. 

The Cameraman is a great example of a film where production context is more interesting than actual text. The film itself is typical Keaton fare- a heartwarming story line, some innovative trick photography, comedic misunderstandings and Keaton’s classic deadpan expression. However, circumstances surrounding the film’s production change the way the film is understood in cinema history.

Made in 1928, the film is Keaton’s first picture produced under his now infamous contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios- a contract would forever mark the decline of one of the silent era’s most popular stars. Keaton allegedly had little choice in the matter and later cited the move as the worst mistake of his career, as his particular creative style did not flourish under the restrictive management of the studio system. Even though Keaton still retained a high degree of control over The Cameraman, some studio provisions still affected the final product. Keaton’s most famous quality was his dedicated stunt work, something that was greatly hindered by MGM’s involvement. The studio forced Keaton to use a stunt double in several scenes, resulting in action sequences that are notably more restrained and less comedic than much of Keaton’s other work. In addition, Keaton did not have final say over production and direction matters, and wasn't allowed to use the improvisational methods he was accustomed to.  

Nevertheless, MGM’s influence isn't entirely detrimental. Cameraman benefits from the studio’s increased budget, allowing for a diverse range of locations, elaborate camerawork, and large crowd scenes. The narrative takes us to bustling New York City streets, a deserted Yankee stadium, Chinatown, an indoor pool, a mental hospital, and a competitive yacht race. MGM is also responsible for increasing Marceline Day’s screen time and making her character Sally more three dimensional. Perhaps most importantly of all, MGM allowed the film to feature Keaton’s adorable co-star, Josephine the monkey.

Regardless of studio control, The Cameraman manages to be a sentimental and funny romantic comedy that incorporates many signature Keaton characteristics. Be sure to check out this great piece of film history on Friday March 20th at 5pm in SS203! 

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