In Buster Keaton’s heyday, between 1920 and 1928, he had enjoyed relative independence over his productions. On top of starring in numerous shorts and features during this time, he would often devise, write and direct them. This led to some ambitious and groundbreaking work, such as Sherlock Jr. and The General. However, when some of these bold and often quite expensive films failed to deliver at the box office, most notably The General, his distributor, United Artists, grew worried and began to restrain Keaton a little. So, after a short while, when offered an hefty contract at Hollywood’s then biggest studio, MGM, Keaton took it. At first, he saw this as a way to make bigger and better films with the budgets they could afford but, eventually, he described it as “the worst mistake of my life”.
MGM only saw Keaton as an actor, not a filmmaker, which was perhaps their biggest mistake and what led to the reduction in quality of his work after the move. Personal problems with an ongoing break-up/divorce and alcoholism were also major factors, but MGM didn’t know how best to handle Keaton’s talent. For one, everything had to be meticulously planned and on paper for MGM, whereas Keaton used to improvise and come up with new ideas on set. Plus, MGM didn’t know how best to use Keaton as a performer. They paired him with mismatched co-star Jimmy Durante, whose style was more aggressive than Keaton’s, so he stole the limelight and didn’t play off his co-star very well.
As Keaton grew less happy with his work at MGM, he hit the bottle harder and eventually was fired, ironically after the film What, No Beer? in 1933. He did return to MGM in the early 40s, after his personal life settled down, but only as a gag-writer. At this time and in later years he carried on performing, but largely just in cameo roles, in shorts and on TV. So his great work remains from his fruitful 20s period.
Much like what happened with The Marx Brothers though, Keaton’s first film with MGM was a triumph that combined the best of his talents with the gloss and resources of the studio, before the standard declined as the lack of independence and creative control took its toll. That first film was The Cameraman. It’s regarded among the best of Keaton’s work and Criterion are releasing it on Blu-ray with his follow-up Spite Marriage as an added bonus film. I gave both a watch and my brief thoughts on them follow.
Director: Edward Sedgwick, Buster Keaton (uncredited)
Screenplay: Clyde Bruckman, Lew Lipton, Joseph Farnham
Starring: Buster Keaton, Marceline Day, Harold Goodwin, Sidney Bracey, Harry Gribbon
Running Time: 70 min
The Cameraman sees Keaton star as a tintype photographer who falls head over heels in love with a woman named Sally (Marceline Day), who works in the MGM newsreel department. Eager to impress her, particularly after seeing her being hit on by manly cameraman co-worker Harold (Harold Goodwin), Buster trades in his tintype for a budget movie camera and tries to grab a big scoop for MGM. He doesn’t know how to use this kit straight away though and his rival tries to scupper his plans, so, as you’d expect, Buster makes a pig’s ear out of everything. A hot tip about a suspected incident brewing in Chinatown might turn the tide for the lovelorn fellow though.
The ‘talkies’ were all the rage during the production of The Cameraman and Keaton was keen to make the move to this new format, but MGM were a bit apprehensive about jumping on the bandwagon, other than for musicals. So the film became his last true silent feature (Spite Marriage was somewhere in-between – see below) and proved to be a wonderful showcase for what made him one of the top three legends of the silent-comedy era, alongside Chaplin and Lloyd.
Keaton’s physical performance skills are honed to perfection here. Not only does he pull off the slapstick, knockabout routines he’d honed from childhood, performing with his parents as a vaudeville act, but he demonstrates his fine dramatic acting chops too. Most notably, he sells the film’s central romance superbly. It’s not particularly well developed in the script, but Keaton does so much with his glances at Sally. Their meeting, in a crowded mob of reporters, is one of the finest depictions of ‘love at first sight’ I’ve ever seen. The couple are literally squeezed together by the crowd and Keaton’s facial reaction to this is beautiful. It’s a simple but hugely effective moment and proves that the actor’s ‘Great Stone Face’ moniker wasn’t entirely accurate. He may have never smiled in the bulk of his films, but he still conveyed great emotion through his eyes and subtle facial movements.
Keaton throws in some stunts and action too as usual. There aren’t any of his more famous and dangerous stunts on display here, but his grabbing of a moving bus is startling and when a platform he’s filming on falls down with him on it, he could have really hurt himself. In fact, MGM would insist on using a stunt double for more dangerous shots on a few of his later films for the studio.
MGM’s resources are put to good use though in one eye-popping sequence, where Keaton runs up and down several flights of stairs and we watch this through a large cut-out of the building with the camera mounted on a crane to follow the movement. It supports a great gag too, as Keaton’s character keeps overshooting the level he’s trying to get to.
An epic gang war with Keaton in the middle of it, trying to film as much as he can, is the biggest set-piece and is genuinely quite exciting as well as hilariously funny. It also makes great use of a monkey, who delivers an astonishingly talented animal performance in the latter portion of the film. The creature was actually called Josephine and appeared in further scene-stealing roles in Harold Lloyd’s The Kid Brother and Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus.
Packed with solid gags and a fantastic central performance, as well as featuring a sweet love story at the film’s core, it sees Keaton firing on all cylinders. Overall, I wouldn’t say it’s his funniest film and doesn’t contain any of his most awe-inspiring stunts but, as an all-round package, it’s worthy of standing aside his best.
Director: Edward Sedgwick, Buster Keaton (uncredited)
Screenplay: Lew Lipton, Ernest Pagano, Robert E. Hopkins
Starring: Buster Keaton, Dorothy Sebastian, Edward Earle
Running Time: 76 min
In Spite Marriage, Keaton plays Elmer Gantry, a ‘pants presser’ (or dry cleaner) who ‘borrows’ his clients’ suits to seem above his station. Most nights he goes to the theatre to watch Trilby Drew (Dorothy Sebastian) perform, as he’s utterly besotted by her. She doesn’t reciprocate his love though. On top of Keaton being a lower-class nobody, she’s got her eye on her co-star, Lionel Benmore (Edward Earle). Unfortunately for Trilby though, Lionel is currently dating an attractive blonde called Ethyl Norcrosse (Leila Hyams). Seething with jealousy after the couple announce their engagement, Trilby tracks down Elmer and demands he marries her that night, to get her own back on Lionel, who she knows likes her.
This ‘spite marriage’ of the title doesn’t last long as Trilby has no interest in Elmer and Lionel admits that he’s only got eyes for Trilby. So, the conniving pair tell Elmer he must disappear, so the marriage can be annulled on grounds of desertion. Elmer reluctantly agrees, but a series of unfortunate (and ridiculous) incidents land him on a yacht with Trilby and Lionel. Elmer hides out as best he can, but events take a turn for the worst and mayhem ensues.
It’s generally believed that The Cameraman was the last great film Keaton made, but Spite Marriage was a lot better than I expected and I believe can happily sit aside the titles in his ‘golden age’, even if it’s not the very best.
The unusual aspect of Spite Marriage that sets it apart from the rest of his silent work is that it treads a strange middle ground between sound and silent film. There is no spoken dialogue but the score was recorded and synced with the picture and there have been some sound effects added to the soundtrack too. This latter addition is just plain odd though. The effects are used a little too sparingly to feel natural and either have a weirdly muted and distant quality (such as when you hear people laughing in crowd scenes) or are cartoonishly heightened. They’re a little off-putting, to be honest, and I believe the film would have been better off as a standard silent presentation. The score is OK though and works as any silent accompaniment would.
The film takes a little while to get going too. The first 15-20 minutes aren’t particularly funny and seem very much like Keaton has lost his ‘mojo’. However, an extended scene when he heads on stage to take on a last-minute role in a play, so he can kiss Trilby, is fantastic. Keaton gets to show off his physical comedy skills here with hilarious results. Spite Marriage was remade in 1943 as a vehicle for the comedian Red Skelton and this scene, as well as a great number of the rest of the physical gags, are precisely copied, they were that effective. Though it helped that Keaton was hired as a ‘gag man’ on the production.
The rest of the film keeps up this standard too, for the most part. A scene where Elmer tries to get his drunken new bride to bed is a particular standout. Sebastian, who was romantically involved with Keaton at the time, must be given credit for allowing herself to be chucked around like a sack of potatoes, and I imagine she was doing more work in the scene than it looks. In general, she’s one of the most well-rounded female characters in any of Keaton’s silent films (usually they’re just foils, eye-candy or damsels in distress), though her character is pretty despicable through the bulk of the film. She’s spiteful and vindictive so treads a fine line between villain and love-interest, which is quite a feat. She mellows by the end though, as you might predict.
There are a few of the classic daring Keaton stunts, particularly in the exciting ocean-set final act, though it must be noted a stunt-man was used at least once in the film, due to MGM’s reluctance to risk the life of their ‘asset’.
So, Spite Marriage is pretty decent all-round and much better than its reputation suggests. It does have a weak opening but kicks into gear soon after and is a lot of fun once Keaton and his antics take centre stage. In terms of direction and story, it’s not one of his best films, but it remains a highly enjoyable addition to his fine oeuvre.
The Cameraman is out on Blu-ray on 20th July in the UK, released by The Criterion Collection. The original negative of The Cameraman was lost in a fire and prints made after the 50s were all missing segments of the film, so it’s fantastic to see this version, with most (if not all – I’m not entirely sure) of the missing material reinstated. Gathering together a couple of different sources for the restoration, the quality isn’t 100% consistent, but, for the most part, the film looks great. Detail is high and damage is low, other than in the odd shot here and there, largely just in the first few minutes.
Spite Marriage isn’t quite as polished a presentation, but it still looks great for its age, despite a little wear and tear here and there.
There are plenty of special features included too:
– New 4K digital restoration undertaken by the Cineteca di Bologna, the Criterion Collection, and Warner Bros.
– New score by composer Timothy Brock, conducted by Brock and performed by the orchestra of the Teatro Comunale di Bologna in 2020, presented in uncompressed stereo on the Blu-ray
– Audio commentary from 2004 featuring Glenn Mitchell, author of A–Z of Silent Film Comedy: An Illustrated Companion
– Spite Marriage (1929), Buster Keaton’s next feature for MGM following The Cameraman, in a new 2K restoration, with a 2004 commentary by film historians John Bengtson and Jeffrey Vance
– Time Travelers, a new documentary by Daniel Raim featuring interviews with Bengtson and film historian Marc Wanamaker
– So Funny It Hurt: Buster Keaton & MGM, a 2004 documentary by film historians Kevin Brownlow and Christopher Bird
– The Motion Picture Camera (1979), a documentary by A.S.C. cinematographer and film preservationist Karl Malkames, in a 4k restoration
– New interview with James L. Neibaur, author of The Fall of Buster Keaton: His Films for MGM, Educational Pictures, and Columbia
– PLUS: An essay by film critic Imogen Sara Smith
– New cover by Victor Melamed
The inclusion of Spite Marriage is the biggest selling point of course and it’s wonderful to see that get its own commentary. John Bengtson and Jeffrey Vance do a great job, discussing Keaton’s work at MGM as well as other illuminating anecdotes about the production.
Glenn Mitchell’s commentary on The Cameraman is enjoyable and packed with interesting facts about the production and those involved. It doesn’t analyse the film in much depth or dig into the issues Keaton had with MGM, but this is comprehensively covered in the ‘So Funny It Hurt’ piece, which is great. It tells a fascinating story and is packed with clips from Keaton’s films, which is always welcome. The James L. Neibaur interview also covers the MGM period in fair detail.
‘Time Travellers’ is not bad, for a locations piece, though I tend to find these more of interest to those living locally to the places in question than someone like me that lives thousands of miles away.
‘The Motion Picture Camera’ is a bit slow and blandly narrated and scored, but it provides a fascinatingly detailed look at how the early film cameras worked. Camera and gadget aficionados will get a big kick out of it.
I didn’t receive a copy of the booklet to comment on that, unfortunately.