South West Silents
The Criterion Collection: The Cameraman (1928)
Updated: Aug 10, 2020
To mark The Criterion Collection‘s UK Blu-ray release of Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman (1928) co-director James Harrison shares his thoughts on this long awaited release.
If there’s one Buster Keaton film that’s been neglected over the past years, even decades, then it has to be The Cameraman (1928). Compared to Keaton’s past features his first project for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer has been crying out for a decent restoration. Screenings which have occurred over the years have either been sourced straight from a 35mm print (fine), from the DVD found on TCM’s Buster Keaton Collection (alright) or a ripped file straight from YouTube (why even bother?) and Home Entertainment hasn’t looked down upon the film with great affection either. Apart from the 2004 exclusive American TCM boxset mentioned above, Keaton’s last true great masterpiece hasn’t donned British shelves since a Warner’s VHS release in 1998!
So there is much to rejoice when it comes to The Criterion Collection’s UK Blu-ray release of The Cameraman on 20th July 2020. In fact, there is more than meets the eye with this Criterion Collection package. Not only do we get the recent beautiful 4K restoration by Cineteca di Bologna, Criterion and Warner Bros of the film as well as the new score by Timothy Brock and Teatro Comunale di Bologna but the special features are worth the price alone. Alongside the main feature we also get Keaton’s next and final silent film project for MGM, Spite Marriage (1929). Other extras include a load of commentaries from Glenn Mitchell, John Bengtson and Jeffrey Vance, a fascinating and forgotten 1979 documentary by Karl Malkames, a new essay by Imogen Sara Smith as well as Kevin Brownlow and Christopher Bird’s celebrated 2004 documentary So Funny It Hurt: Buster Keaton & MGM and that’s just my key highlights from the special features.
But what about The Cameraman itself; is it Keaton’s crowning achievement as many have argued? It most certainly has every element that past Keaton films have. Those comic action packed moments that we love from Keaton are present in the shape of a fantastic swimming pool sequence, a Tong battle in Chinatown and a superb one man baseball match. And those longing moments from Keaton as he yearns for ‘the girl’, in this case Marceline Day, are prefect and, to be honest, totally understandable; Day is just perfect in the role as Sally Richards. The Cameraman also includes one of the most important shots Keaton had ever put onto celluloid; a lone Buster on his knees, devastated, with a monkey operating his film camera in the foreground. There are many shots from Keaton’s career which sum up the entire concept of what Buster Keaton’s persona stands for in front of the camera and this is one of them; and probably, with hindsight, his most significant.
Given the fact that Keaton’s film career had only started just over a decade before with The Butcher Boy (1917) it is quite incredible how far not only Keaton had come during this period but how far film had developed as an art form. At this point we are very much at the peak of the silent film era. With classics such as Josef von Sternberg’s The Docks of New York, Chaplin’s The Circus, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, Paul Leni’s The Man Who Laughs, Victor Sjöström’s The Wind and King Vidor’s The Crowd (both Sjöström and Vidor’s films are also screaming out for new restorations by the way) and The Cameraman can proudly stand alongside all of these 1928 films.
But, unlike film’s continuing rise (even with the introduction of sound) Keaton’s career was now in flux and about to fall dramatically. The reasons for this decline are well documented and covered in the extras (particularly in Brownlow’s and Bird’s documentary) and very much showcase Keaton’s final chapter in the silent era and his turbulent time at MGM.
If anything, having Spite Marriage as an extra really gives us a sense of where The Cameraman should stand within Keaton’s filmography. No disrespect to Spite Marriage, but the anxiety of Keaton’s relationship with his new studio employers is clearly visible when comparing it to The Cameraman. Also, Spite Marriage is in no way on pare with the likes of The General (1926), Go West (1925), The Navigator (1924) and Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928). In fact, comparing even these classics now, thanks to this new Criterion release, The Cameraman could well be Keaton’s finest film. Even Keaton’s other project celebrating film and cinema, Sherlock Jr. (1924) seems to strain against what The Cameraman is able to bring to the table.
In conclusion, The Cameraman is an incredibly fluid and action packed film from the get go. If anything, it is a no holds barred urban thrill ride highlighting the lives of newsreel cameramen. But infused with the style in which only Buster Keaton knows how; through total chaos! It is the ultimate Buster Keaton film!
Thanks then to The Criterion Collection as we can now see the last great Buster Keaton silent film in all of its glory in this thoroughly thought through entertaining package. We strongly recommend you get yourself a copy, you will not be disappointed.