Buster is a sidewalk tintype photographer. One day, he takes a picture of a very distracted Sally. While he’s developing the shot, though, a cameraman (with a real film camera!) shows up and they catch a cab together, leaving Buster holding her picture. Buster eventually tracks her down at the MGM Newsreel office. Buster decides he’s through taking tintypes and starts agitating for a job, romancing Sally along the way.
This 1928 time-capsule of a movie bears a lot of similarity to Harold Lloyd’s Speedy. They both have the same basic structure: a less-than-ambitious, somewhat lazy young man meets an attractive woman who inspires him to greater achievements. After many mishaps, a lengthy date sequence, and a street riot, the young man succeeds and wins both financial success and his girlfriend’s hand in marriage.
The date takes place at the Venice Plunge, an enormous, now-razed, public swimming pool in Los Angeles. We get to see a lot of how this pool operated, from the ticketing at the front to the bathing suit rentals. There’s a great comic sequence in the dressing rooms, where Buster and a random stranger try to change into their outfits in a cramped changing room at the same time. Lots about this pool is a shock, from the size to the crowds, but what really gets me is the idea of renting a bathing suit. No thank you.
The street riot sequence is a “Tong war” Buster attempts to film. It is elaborately choreographed and shot on a set in the MGM movie lot. Buster does several stunts, but the real breath-taker is a scene where he rides a one-story shelter down to the ground, filming the whole way. Although maybe this isn’t Buster. MGM, nervous about their investment hurting himself, insisted on stunt doubles for some scenes.
Buster was more or less forced into selling his studio by the expensive flop that was The General, a Civil War comedy that took decades to find its audience. He threw in with MGM, just a few blocks down, but they didn’t trust his judgement anymore. Shooting The Cameraman was apparently a nightmare, the studio meddling in Keaton’s already famous formula and a company director (Edward Sedgwick) to butt heads with. MGM even insisted that Keaton, whose reputation was so deadpan he was called the “Great Stone Face,” end the film with a smile. According to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, test audiences revolted and the movie was released sans grin.
Once believed lost in a film vault fire, a print was discovered in Paris in the late sixties. Almost twenty-five years later, a better (but less complete) print was found. Criterion used both to produce a high-quality restoration they released on blu-ray in 2020. Some of the footage looks a little rough — these are presumably from the Paris print — but much of the film is sharp and stable with excellent contrast. I am constantly surprised at how well modern film restoration methods work on century-old fragile stock. If you are not used to watching silent films, this is an excellent place to start.
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