Buster Keaton is at the peak of his slapstick powers in The Cameraman—the first film that the silent-screen legend made after signing with MGM, and his last great masterpiece. The final work over which he maintained creative control, this clever farce is the culmination of an extraordinary, decade-long run that produced some of the most innovative and enduring comedies of all time. Keaton plays a hapless newsreel cameraman desperate to impress both his new employer and his winsome office crush as he zigzags up and down Manhattan hustling for a scoop. Along the way, he goes for a swim (and winds up soaked), becomes embroiled in a Chinatown Tong War, and teams up with a memorable monkey sidekick (the famous Josephine). The marvelously inventive film-within-a-film setup allows Keaton’s imagination to run wild, yielding both sly insights into the travails of moviemaking and an emotional payoff of disarming poignancy.
Buster Keaton makes his debut in The Criterion Collection with his first MGM film, The Cameraman, presented here in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1 on a dual-layer disc with a 1080p/24hz high-definition encode. Criterion, Warner Bros. and Cineteca di Bologna collaborated on the new 4K restoration that serves as the basis for this presentation.
The end results are impressive, striking even, but source materials end up limiting things to a fairly large extent, and based on the restoration notes there was no way around this. Most of the restoration comes from a scan of a 35mm fine-grain master, which was sourced from the original negative, with part of said negative missing footage to begin with, assumed to have been lost in 1965 vault fire at MGM. Making things even more difficult is that sections of this fine-grain had been cut out to be used for the 1964 compilation film MGM’s Big Parade of Comedy, showcasing gags from The Cameraman. For these sections Warner Bros. sourced the 35mm duplicate negative for that film. And then where materials were missing or too badly deteriorated a 16mm print held by the Library of Congress was used. After all of this, though, there is still a 3-minute (or so) section missing from the film (which is covered a little bit in the supplements, using footage from a Red Skelton film that reused the gag in question).
As I stated previously, it does look like most of the film has been sourced from the fine-grain but a good chunk of the first third of the film appears to be sourced from the 16mm print (which the opening notes about the restoration point out). These sections are by far the roughest looking. Detail is severely lacking, and grayscale wants for delineation. These portions can be flat with bright whites and really dark blacks, with details being lost in between. This is how the film pretty much opens so don’t be surprised if you feel a smidge of disappointment for the first little bit, but I promise you things get better. As the film progresses there are a few sharper shots thrown in (obviously from a better source) and the image jumps back and forth between the varying sources until things stabilize after the first few reels of the film and the stronger source elements become the norm.
When the stronger source materials are used—which becomes more obvious when the action moves to the indoor water park—the image is very impressive. The fine details found in the lengthy water park sequence, from tile to the pipes to the general wear, pop off of the screen, and the water itself looks rather lifelike itself. You can make out stray hairs and even pores on close-ups, and you can clearly make out every person in the pool on long shots. The “Tong War” sequence has a lot going on with the costumes and the street setting, and a rain sequence between Buster and a cop (who keeps popping up throughout the film) delivers some extraordinary textures. There’s also a nice film-like texture to the image during its stronger moments, and film grain is gorgeously rendered. The 16mm sequences, on the other hand, come off a little lackluster in this department, looking fuzzier with grain that’s a bit more smudgy.
The digital presentation is very good, and a lot of effort has gone into keeping a film-like look where possible, and a similar amount of effort has gone into cleaning up the film, though again the source materials limit things. Not surprisingly there are still some marks that include specs of dirt, scratches and tram lines yet the damage is minimal when the stronger materials are being used. The 16mm elements on the other hand, have been through the ringer. Again, these elements are softer and weaker to begin with, but damage is also heavier, with some very bad stippling patterns popping up, along with what could be mold remnants. It is what it is in the end and I really feel everything that could be done was done.
Despite the inherent weaknesses that come from the source materials the overall restoration and final presentation is strong and I was blown away by it during its stronger moments, which do make up most of the last two-thirds of the film. Any problems that remain just come down to limitations of the source materials that are available, but the cons are overshadowed by the positives.
Being Keaton’s second-to-last silent film, the film is accompanied by a score and Criterion includes a new one, created for the film and conducted by Timothy Brock in 2020. It is presented here in lossless PCM 2.0 stereo. Since it’s a new recording it should come as no surprise that it’s very clean, features excellent fidelity, and excellent range. The mix is simple but effective. As to the score itself it suits the film and is kind of catchy in its own right (I’m humming it at the moment).
Previously released by Warner Bros. on DVD (as part of a set with two other MGM Keaton films), Criterion does port most of the material over. The big inclusion would probably be Keaton’s second MGM film (and his last full-feature “silent” film), Spite Marriage (which was the second film on that Warner disc). Keaton would say that moving to MGM was “the worst mistake of my life” because of his lack of creative freedom at the studio, who insisted on tight scripting and playing it safe, which wasn’t Keaton’s style. The stress from working there eventually led to him falling into alcoholism. Despite some freedom with The Cameraman and the film being a big success, MGM actually got more restrictive with this next film, and it certainly shows. The film’s plot is fairly simple: Keaton plays a lowly worker in love with a stage actress (Dorothy Sebastian), who in turn is hung up on another stage actor. When her object-of-affection marries someone else, she marries Keaton’s character out of “spite” (hence the title) only to regret her decision later.
The plot doesn’t really matter all that much (though I feel there is a heavier focus on story here than what is found in Keaton’s previous feature films, at least of the ones I’ve seen) and it is all there to set-up gags, but the gags are ultimately uninspired and I only recall cracking a smile here and there. The lunacy that I’ve come to expect from his early work (including how it always looked like Keaton was going to break his neck at any given moment) is not there. There are a handful of decent bits, including some impressive stunt work near the film’s conclusion where Keaton and the “villain” try to throw each other off of a boat with little success at first, but otherwise the film limps along. I haven’t seen the follow-up film to this yet (his first talkie, Free and Easy), but any desire to do so died with this one.
Criterion makes use of a 2K restoration for Spite Marriage. It looks nowhere near as good as The Cameraman at its best, with the source print looking to be in fairly poor condition, but the presentation is at least more consistent. The print is a bit faded, getting worse around the edges, and detail, while fine, lacks the crispness of the main feature on this disc (again, at its best). But the image still has a nice filmic quality to it and restoration efforts, while looking to be not as extensive, have done a decent job.
Criterion also includes the film’s original soundtrack (though in Dolby Digital 1.0 mono). Keaton had actually wanted Spite Marriage to be his first talkie but MGM was wary of making a jump into the format, so they basically told him to forget it. He was at least able to create his own soundtrack with music and sound effects that would be distributed to theaters using a vinyl record, and according to the included commentary for the film one of those records was used as the source for the audio on the Warner DVD from 2004. I can’t say if that holds true here as well, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the case as the age still shows. It’s a fairly flat track, a bit edgy and tinny in places, with some more noticeable background noise. But it’s serviceable and doesn’t have any glaring problems.
Then, as hinted at previously, Criterion includes an audio commentary track for each film: one featuring Glenn Mitchell for The Cameraman and another for Spite Marriage featuring John Bengston and Jeffrey Vance, both of which were originally recorded for Warner’s 2004 DVD set. Though both are serviceable enough, with participants who are knowledgeable and happy to be talking about Keaton and the respective film they’re covering, I can’t say I really cared for either. Both tracks get a little into his time at MGM (though not as much as I would have figured) and all participants seem to enjoy talking about the gags, how they were constructed, and how they were possibly influenced (even referencing his past work), but there feels like there is a lot of filler, especially in the one for Spite Marriage where there is more about the people appearing in the film than much else. At least Mitchell’s track tries to expand things out, even if he does get caught up on things that probably don’t matter (like what the name of the monkey is). There’s also a surprising amount of dead space in both tracks. I’m glad Criterion carried them over but I was a bit let down by both.
Also ported over from the DVD is the 38-minute Kevin Brownlow/Christopher Bird documentary So Funny It Hurt: Buster Keaton & MGM, hosted by Keaton friend James Karen. The documentary nicely fills in the gaps left by the commentaries by getting more into why Keaton went to MGM and how they restricted him. The documentary also looks at more of his work there and gets into the effects the experience had on his personal like. Though I would still direct curious parties to Karina Longworth’s coverage of the same subject for an episode of her “You Must Remember This” podcast, this is still a solid overview of Keaton’s time at MGM and worth watching.
Criterion then includes some new material, starting with Time Travelers, a 16-minute featurette featuring Business-Lawyer-Slash-Silent-Film-Expert John Bengston (with Marc Wanamaker as a back-up) and put together by Daniel Raim. Even if I didn’t care too much for the commentary he participated in, Bengston’s knowledge is put to better use with this nicely edited feature. Though it’s technically one of those pieces that revisits locations used for the film (all within the L.A. area) it ends up being a bit deeper than that. Outside of revisiting a number of locations used in The Cameraman (and other films that include Keaton’s Cops and Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid) it gives examples in how Bengston hunts down these locations based on the evidence he can find in the films, and also offers a look at how these films serve an important function by offering a snap shot of the area (in this case, L.A.) of the time. The indoor water park, for example, was closed and torn down long ago, but the film offers a very vivid document of it, right down to all of the finer details. Location featurettes are usually interesting but ultimately feel like simple throwaways, but this one decides to also get into the nitty-gritty that goes into tracking these spots down and the importance behind doing so.
Newly recorded for this edition is an interview with James L. Neibaur, author of The Fall of Buster Keaton: His Films for MGM, Educational Pictures, and Columbia. This ends up being a bit of an expansion on the documentary that covers Keaton’s time at MGM. Neibauer expands on the material found in the documentary and then ventures out to his work after MGM, which includes Educational Pictures, Columbia (both of whom allowed for more freedom but limited his budgets), and then his work as a consultant, his move to television (including his famous episode for The Twilight Zone), and then other jobs he did up to his death. He also offers a defense for Keaton’s later work, feeling that fans unfairly overlook some of it. It’s a great little 14-minute addendum to the other material around Keaton and MGM covered on this release.
The disc supplements then close things off with the nice little out-of-left-field gem of short film, The Motion Picture Camera, created by film preservationist Karl Malkames in 1979. The short documentary offers a look at early turn-of-the-century film cameras (and then up to the 50’s), examining the inner workings and mechanics of them, while also explaining the advancements and why they were put in place, or how they were utilized by cameramen. This kind of stuff fascinates me, so I just ate it up and I’m thrilled that Criterion included it, even though it technically has nothing to do with Keaton’s film. Criterion is also making use of brand new 4K restoration of the film, and it looks pretty damn good here, all of the details of those cameras popping off of the screen. A really great addition.
Finally, Criterion includes a booklet, this one featuring an excellent essay on the film by Imogen Sara Smith, and then a reprint of the chapter from Keaton’s biography The Wonderful World of Slapstick covering his time at MGM (though they make a note that the book includes some factual errors). The original announcement for the release only mentioned the Smith essay so it was a wonderful surprise getting the chapter from the book.
Missing from this release, in comparison to Warner’s previous DVD, is an introduction by TCM host Robert Osborne, and the film Free and Easy, Keaton’s first talkie. I suspect Criterion might revisit that one in the future, though I haven’t come across anything indicating any plans for that.
Commentaries aside (which are fine, just not ones I would go out of my way to listen to) Criterion puts together a rather solid edition, with their new features and the inclusion of The Motion Picture Camera being quite wonderful all on their own.
Criterion has put together a rather loving edition for the film, packing on some great new material to accompany the impressive new restoration. A very easy recommendation.