The Cameraman is Buster Keaton’s first film for MGM: he would later say signing to them was “the worst mistake of my career.” However, he was still at the top of his game here, and watching it is just a glorious 70 minutes of your time. Sadly, within one year MGM would snatch creative control from Keaton, forcing him to do increasingly uninteresting work for the rest of his career.
Keaton plays a good-natured photographer who develops a crush on Sally (Marceline Day), who is an adorable secretary for MGM newsreels. He wants to be hired on as a cameraman, but he has a rival who’s a hotshot. He struggles through, despite messing up his first couple of attempts when he really doesn’t know what he’s doing. Then he gets a tip about a Tong War, and gets all this amazing footage. It seems like he had forgotten to load the film, but… It’s just a really funny Keaton film, complete with a monkey who’s his little pal. The monkey even shoots a machine gun, which is pretty memorable.
It’s brilliantly filmed: all the gags are master classes in how to set up slapstick and comedic filmmaking. It’s just really solid. Overall, his silents far outweigh his later films— they are in a different league. The Cameraman is perhaps a bit more dramatic and less stunt-based than some of the others. Keaton was at the end of an amazing run, before his career took a turn for the worse. It’s a great movie that makes you sad that his ability was blocked by the studio., the last film where Keaton had much control. MGM hired Edward Cedric as the official director, but as with most Keaton films, he was the de facto director. Sometimes he’s credited, sometimes not.
The disc also includes Spite Marriage, his next film and the first where MGM took over. Keaton had wanted to make it a talkie, but the studio said no. Other extras include commentary from silent film comedy author Glenn Mitchell, a new documentary, a 2004 Kevin Brownlow documentary, another documentary from the 1970s, and an interview with James Neibaur, who wrote a book on Keaton’s films at MGM and beyond. The booklet includes an essay by Imogen Sara Smith.