In the late 1920s, after Buster Keaton’s “The General” had been a box office disappointment, though now is rightfully seen as a masterpiece, Keaton’s longtime distributor United Artists began to reign in the independence Keaton had seen throughout much of his career as an independent filmmaker. UA insisted that Keaton work with a production manager to keep an eye on cost and have input on story elements. Keaton didn’t much care for this, and after working under those conditions for two films, he accepted an offer to move shop to MGM.
Keaton would later call the move “the worst decision I ever made in my life.” MGM signed Keaton to a two-year deal that required two films a year from the comedian, with a salary of $3,000 a week, making him the third highest-paid star at the studio. If you’re curious that calculates with inflation today as roughly $45,000 a week. Keaton was able to bring most of his longtime crew with him to MGM, he pitched them on an idea for a film called “The Cameraman” and MGM bought it. Work began on the film and Keaton clashed with studio producers. Though the film would become a hit, it would be the last time Keaton had any control over his creative work and is considered by many today to be his last great film.
Keaton plays a street cameraman, offering tintypes—a photograph made on a thin sheet of metal—for just a few cents per photo. But he develops a desire to move up and impress a girl he has a crush on, so he trades his camera for a movie camera in hopes of scoring a job with the MGM newsreel office. To do this, he needs to have a reel to show what he can do. Keaton then begins to wander around looking for newsworthy events and incidents to photograph. The film is a great deal of fun with a particularly delightful turn of events towards the end where Keaton teams up with a monkey.
This new edition of the film from The Criterion Collection comes packed with a wonderful array of goodies, including an entire second film, 1929’s follow up to “The Cameraman,” “Spite Marriage” which would be his last silent film. That film is included in a new 2K restoration, whereas “The Cameraman” is sourced from a new 4K restoration. The Film’s original negative was lost in the MGM vault fire of 1965, three sources were used for this restoration, with the majority of the film coming from a 1957 35mm fine-grain master that MGM made.
There’s a lot packed into this single-disc blu-ray, outside of two films in new restorations, we have a 2004 audio commentary by author Glenn Mitchell for “The Cameraman” and a 2004 commentary for “Spite Marriage” with historians John Bengtson and Jeffery Vance. A new documentary “Time Travelers,” a 2004 documentary “So Funny it Hurt” that looks at Keaton at MGM, plus the 1979 documentary “The Motion Picture Camera.” Capping it off is a new interview with James L. Neibaur, the author of “The Rise and Fall of Buster Keaton” and a new essay in the booklet by critic Imogen Sara Smith.
For Keaton fans and silent film aficionados, this is an absolute must own. The two films included look fantastic, and there’s a depth of information to be gained between the varied supplements induced alongside them. This one comes recommended by yours truly, see you next week.