Scen.: Clyde Bruckman, Lew Lipton. F.: Elgin Lessley, Reggie Lanning. M.: Hugh Wynn. Scgf.: Fred Gabourie. Int.: Buster Keaton (Buster), Marceline Day (Sally), Harold Goodwin (Stagg), Sidney Bracy (Edward), Harry Gribbon (the policeman), Josephine (the monkey). Prod.: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. DCP. D.: 69’. Bn.
I invite you to watch The Cameraman again in which Buster Keaton – after having been an athlete and a devoted extra – becomes a news cameraman for love. Only an acrobat could fake clumsiness at that level; only a poet could fake a drowsy mind concealing brilliant distraction. As extraordinary as a ghost at noon, he soberly strolls across stories like daydreams. Fate works against him, and daily life puzzles him. He is a man who does not know how to live. A loner, he becomes completely resigned. Ignoring formulas, customs and fashions, he feels at ease only in the midst of mayhem. Catastrophes bring out his true capacity. Disasters do not unsettle this man from another world. Love inspires all his rescue attempts; he only succeeds in the most desperate scenarios; he does the impossible without even knowing it.
Paul Gilson, Ciné-Magic, André Bonne, Paris, 1951
It is the usual formula, which was also used in many Chaplin films and much of American cinema during the silent era. […] These set formulas are always comedic. They are set because an expression of predominant social myths; and they are comic because they are formulas, that is, something dead and lifeless that irrevocably reveals its outdated nature when taken seriously. The formula of Italian comedy is limited and meagre; instead, the formula of The Cameraman is nothing less than the last resounding echo of the capitalist (and Calvinist) concept of professional success as a sign of and award for fair and ethical behaviour. That this concept was already a comic formula during Keaton’s day demonstrates that the old ‘American Way of Life’ was already obsolete. What two centuries earlier was serious became comic despite being identical.
Keaton’s comedy in The Cameraman also contains an intellectual observation on the camera as a tool for reporting reality and as a means of verification. The brilliant idea of the monkey imitating the photographer and filming the scene in which Keaton rescues the drowning girl, the scene that makes him triumphant over his rival, shows the absurdity of success ultimately happening by chance (thanks to the monkey); it also anticipates the invention of the film within a film and the film about film, decades before Godard and Antonioni. In other words, Keaton at that time had his own doubts about the relationship created between artist and reality, between means and the message. How extraordinary and deep Keaton was!
Alberto Moravia, L’inventore di Godard, “L’Espresso”, 31 January 1971
The Restoration of The Cameraman
The 4K digital restoration of The Cameraman is the result of a unique partnership between Criterion Collection, Cineteca di Bologna and Warner Bros.
For this restoration, three elements were used: a 35mm MGM second-generation fine grain manufactured by MGM labs in 1957 from the 35mm original camera negative; a 16mm print from the Library of Congress, courtesy of Bruce Lawton and the Malkames Collection; and a 35mm duplicate positive from MGM’s Big Parade of Comedy. The film elements were scanned at Warner Bros Motion Picture Imaging in Burbank, and the digital restoration was carried out at L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratory.
FIAF archives and private collections around the world were combed to find the 291 feet of missing footage, unfortunately without success.
In a lengthy 1958 interview with Keaton, George Eastman House’s influential curator George Charles Pratt tells Buster: “There’s one unfortunate gap in our print. Apparently the negative has deteriorated. It’s the part where you go out the first day and everything goes wrong. There’s just a bit of that left…” and Keaton replies: “That’s a shame because some of the biggest gags are there”. Fortunately, only 30 shots are missing from reel 3, described as follows in the original MGM script continuity:
EXT Hotel: Buster sets up his camera in front of Hotel. Doorman exits Hotel, followed by Admiral and his staff and get into car. Buster takes pictures of the doorman, Buster walks away, then realizes he should be photographing the Admiral.
MS Yacht in dry dock, people in foreground. Girl standing by bow of boat with a bottle in hand to christen boat. Buster sets up his camera to capture image. The boat slides into water Buster and camera are on a plank tied to the boat and slide into water along with the boat (fade out).
CU of cannon firing, Buster photographs (fade out).
MS: MGM News Reel office: Buster enters carrying camera, shows a can of film to girl at desk, editor greets Buster who gives him reel of film and says (intertitle) “It’s great stuff, Sir! I hope you’ll look at it”. Office door opens and hits Buster, door closes as another cameraman comes through the door, breaking glass with his tripod.
LS Projection Room: Editor is talking with girl, Buster walks to foreground and sits in front row of the screening room. Shot of Editor looking mad and girl looking disappointed. MS of men on horses in a jumping meet. Buster had cranked camera backward, so horses are jumping in reverse. MCS of Buster in screening room looking very sad.
According to the archival records, the negative was shipped from MGM Culver City to Kodak on February 1951: upon inspection of the negative, Kodak notified George Eastman House and MGM of the missing footage from reel 3. There are no records confirming when the original camera negative was destroyed, and it is thought that it might have been in the 1965 MGM vault fire.
In 1968 Keaton films were in high demand and when MGM was unable to locate the studio fine grain it made a 35mm blow-up dupe from a 9.5mm print from Paris.MGM finally located the fine grain in 1991 – when film historian and collector David Shepard found it in Robert Youngston’s vast collection he had acquired – though it was missing footage from single reels 1A, 2A, 3A and 4A. The majority of footage removed from the fine grain was used to create the documentary MGM’s Big Parade of Comedy.
Film reconstruction carried out by Warner Bros. used Big Parade to recover as much of the cut section as possible. Film historian/collector Bruce Lawton’s 16mm print was used to replace the blow-up sections and any of the footage not found in MGM’s Big Parade of Comedy. This 16mm print was made for the George Eastman House in 1951 and was printed by the Eastman Kodak plant in Rochester.
The score to The Cameraman: composing for an ensemble
I wrote The Cameraman score on a commission from The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra in 2010, and it was the last score I conducted for Peter von Bagh at the Midnight Sun Film Festival one year before his passing in 2014.
Some scores emerge from a composer whose content is directly influenced by the original commissioning musicians. At the time I had conducted the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra every year for 15 straight years, and I had got to know their strengths (but not so much their weaknesses, which were too few to recognize), which I dutifully exploited. There was virtuosity in each section of the ensemble, and this has presented some challenges to ensembles who have played the score since then. This is also true when writing scores specifically for the Orchestra del Teatro Comunale di Bologna, which I have done many times over the years. Knowing that I had Paolo Mancini or Francesco Parazzoli in the orchestra allowed me to compose deep and inherently more musical passages for violin or violoncello that would, by any other standard, be considered concerti.
Since this score was written for an ensemble of just under 20 players, it afforded me the chance to utilize the greatest asset a chamber orchestra has to offer: flexibility! Musicians can, from one moment to another, produce the most intimate sounds and tenderest of moments, and around the corner find themselves in the middle of a 500-strong Chinese gang war. The Cameraman requires this kind of malleability. It is also probably the most romantic of all my Keaton scores, and I make no apologies for it. I’ve always considered Keaton one of the most exhilarating leading men in Hollywood, even at a distance.
The score calls for piccolo, flute, oboe, clarinet, bass-clarinet, bassoon, horn, pianoforte, two percussionists and strings.