Asmartly dressed man, wearing suit, tie and hat in the 1920s fashion, walks towards us along a New York street, accompanied by a stylish woman. Suddenly, he is flat on his back. He gets up, dusts himself off, and walks on as jauntily as before.
What happened? Well, in the two-dimensional world in which he lives – this is a movie – he stepped on a banana peel. In the slightly larger frame of things, he placed the peel in a spot where he could slip on it, and the whole scene is more like a figure of speech than a piece of action. The man is Buster Keaton, after all, and the gag wasn’t new – to him or anyone else – in 1928. Keaton had used it at least twice before. In The High Sign (1921) he carefully avoids one banana peel only to slip on another, and in Sherlock Jr (1924) he drops a peel as a trap for someone else. The intended victim doesn’t see it or step on it, but Keaton gets up in a rush and slips on the peel himself. These are allusions or variants – the gag, or at least the proverbial reference to the risks of slipping on a littered street, had been doing the rounds since the middle of the 19th century – but the first version I cited is very pure, as if to signal the fact that slapstick, like ballet, has its classic moves.
This particular move appears in Keaton’s last great film, The Cameraman (1928), soon to be released in a new print by the Criterion Collection, and the stylisation feels like an attempt at formalism in an otherwise rather messy work. This was Keaton’s first film for MGM; he is credited only as an actor, and didn’t get on at first with the director, Edward Sedgwick. Things worked out well in the end, though, and Keaton was allowed to insert whole scenes of his own invention that he shot himself. The film doesn’t have the mock-clumsy elegance of The General (1926), its sense of comedy as choreographed mishap, but it finds amazing ways of thinking about the medium of film through the medium of film.
At the beginning of The Cameraman, Keaton is a tintype street photographer. (The tintype was a precursor of the Polaroid: different technology but similar in that it allowed the customer to receive a copy of the picture as soon as it was taken.) In the first of many such moments – this may in fact be the film’s undeclared main theme – the quiet scene of photographer and client is invaded by a mob. The theme being: you think you’re alone or in a couple, but you’re not. Or: no one is ever alone. In this case a tickertape parade provides the interruption, at other times it’s a stampede for a bus or a gunfight in Chinatown. Even an office is full of crowds, and everyone running in and out is carrying a movie camera, tripod and all.
The scene with the bus is especially memorable. Keaton and the woman he is courting, played by Marceline Day, decide to catch a ride to the swimming pool. When Day boards the bus, they appear to be the only new passengers. By the time Keaton tries to step on, though, he is caught up in a horde of rushing people and swept to the open top deck. He can scarcely move, but manages to peer down to see his date inside. He swings over the side of the bus to perch on the mudguard conveniently placed just parallel with where she is sitting. They chat through the window as the bus whizzes along. This sort of posture – relaxing in a place that would be almost impossible for anyone else to occupy – is a Keaton signature, deployed most brilliantly perhaps in Sherlock Jr, where he not only sits on the handlebars of a bike as if they were an armchair, but rides happily for miles (through busy traffic, across train tracks) without realising that the cyclist who was steering the bike has fallen off.
At the first tickertape parade – there is one at the end of the movie too, and the consensus seems to be that the occasion for it is the celebration of Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight in 1927 – Keaton meets Day, and follows her to where she works, in the MGM newsreel office. Inspired by her presence (and the hefty cameras he sees being carted about), Keaton pawns his Tintype device and buys a rickety old newsreel machine. Day tells him, on a title card, that he needs to get some footage if he’s to have any hope of getting a job, and the rest of the film, pretty much, shows him trying, and seemingly failing, to find stories he can make pictures of.
His first attempt is at Yankee Stadium. There’s no one there except a groundsman. ‘Aren’t the Yankees playing today?’ Keaton asks him. ‘Sure, but in St Louis,’ the man says. With the stadium to himself, Keaton decides to mime a game, first as pitcher, winding up and throwing, then as batter, nearly getting knocked out by a first throw, hitting the second hard and racing round the field for a dramatic home run. It’s a tour de force, but only for the movie audience. The groundsman stares; Keaton looks mildly embarrassed and walks off.
Eventually, Keaton does find some scenes to shoot, and screens the result for the boss at the newsreel office. It’s a mess, and everyone laughs at Keaton’s incompetence. Through an error of double exposure he has shown busy streets swirling with traffic and a battleship sailing up the middle of the scene. This is terrible reporting, of course, but it’s great moviemaking, as if Eisenstein had decided to use montage as an out-of-control banana-peel joke.
In many comedy films, silent and spoken, the plot exists simply as something to hang the gags on, and that often seems the case in The Cameraman. We see Keaton running up and down stairs, through streets, crashing into people, failing to open his money box full of dimes, smashing a glass door with his bulky camera: all of them brilliant skits, incomparable yet episodic. But then, given the storyline (street photographer trying to capture moving news), the movie camera itself begins to look like a comedian. Is it always useless, lost in a crowd, endlessly subject to accident?
It seems so. Tipped off by Day, Keaton goes to film a street war in Chinatown. And he succeeds by virtue of enormous bravery and skill. He is accompanied by an organ-grinder’s monkey he has acquired along the way. Returning to the office, he tries to screen his footage, hoping for more success a second time around. But there is no film in the camera – presumably the monkey took it out. Despairing, Keaton says he will give it all up.
The next day, however, he is back filming a regatta, as part of which Day and Keaton’s rival for her affections are racing together in a speedboat. They take a turn too fast, fall out of the boat and swim off in different directions. Day appears to be drowning and Keaton saves her. Leaving her on the shore to recover, he dashes off to a drugstore. While he’s away, the rival shows up, and when Day regains consciousness he allows her to believe that he rescued her. When Keaton returns he realises what has happened, and truly gives up hope. He sends his last reel to the office as a gesture of defeat.
What Keaton doesn’t realise is that, while he was rescuing Day, the monkey was winding the camera crank and filming, and that the same reel contains the magnificent street war footage he filmed the day before. This is what gets shown in the office. Keaton gets his reward as a photographer and a lover, and, dizzy with success, he walks along the streets thinking the Lindbergh parade is for him. I’m not sure this outcome shows that film is ‘the instrument of truth’, as Imogen Sara Smith claims in her very good book on Keaton (Buster Keaton: The Persistence of Comedy), but it does show that cameras can see what humans can’t or don’t, even if it takes a friendly monkey to turn the handle.