|Comedy was in Buster Keaton's blood: his parents were vaudeville stars who incorporated him into their act, which was very physical. Imagine watching a comedy where a little boy is thrown violently around the stage and you will have some idea of what Buster's folks had him do, not something that would be permitted, never mind acceptable for audiences, now, but these antics served him in good stead for his later career as a grownup. After these formative years, he drifted into the nascent Hollywood film industry as a friend of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, who he would stick by as he became a superstar, but also when a scandal unfairly wrecked his life.
It wasn't scandal that wrecked Keaton's career, if anything it was being too successful. A contemporary of the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Harry Langdon, the generation of silent comedians he belonged to would all see their popularity take a knock as time went on, in various ways, but for Keaton "the worst mistake of my life" was signing to a major studio. When he was making his independent classics like Sherlock Jr or The General, he had complete control over his material, much of it conjured up on the spot which contributed to his spontaneity in front of the camera, but he did not feel as if he had the job security he needed.
Those peers warned him not to, but after completing Steamboat Bill Jr Keaton signed with MGM, believing he would now have a supportive studio who could fund his flights of fancy and ensure he had a career, and 1928's The Cameraman was the consequence of that contract. Although there were some hiccups in the making that should have set off alarm bells for the comic, it was one of the biggest hits he ever had, and if the stunts he was best known for were less ambitious, the storyline, one of a much put-upon newsreel cameraman who struggles to romance a secretary (Marceline Day) in the MGM offices, presented him as one of his most sympathetic characters.
Indeed, The Cameraman saw Keaton at his most loveable, which served to increase the entertainment value since his lead - simply named Buster - was so downtrodden that audiences' hearts went out to him, and laughing at him was just the tonic the world needed, not coincidentally because it felt as if you were supporting the little guy. The ridiculous situations Buster gets involved with largely revolved around his attempts to secure some decent footage to get him a post at the newsreel company, but there was a diversion or two, such as the hampered date he goes on with Day that somehow ends up with him completely naked in the public swimming pool.
You get the impression Keaton's female fans were always pleased when he took his shirt off since he was in such tremendous shape (and some of the male ones, too), and he was at his physical peak on The Cameraman, before he began to turn self-destructive with alcohol and bad business choices that reportedly had him eventually crying between takes of the low budgeters he had found himself in, lamenting the golden era he knew would never return. Although his first MGM effort would be one he regarded with bitterness, his fans looked to it with enormous affection thanks to it really being the last time Keaton would shine in one of his starring roles of the silents.
It was not his last silent, however, as MGM put him in a follow-up called Spite Marriage in 1929, and here was where the rot set in. Although there were some concessions to Keaton's talent in creating gags out of thin air, his creative control was out of the window and he was landed with some very mediocre material as he played an obsessive fan of a stage actress who it turns out is initially unworthy of his affection, then very worthy of it. These days this character would be called a stalker, but while the film was not as sobering as that sounds, it was if you were aware of what the great star had been reduced to in comparison to what he was capable of.
Life after the talkies came in was never the same for Keaton as it had been when he was at his apex, and it is tempting to regard him in much the same way his character in The Cameraman invites us to: a hard luck story where our hero couldn't catch a break. Not that the hits dried up immediately, he had three substantial successes co-starring with Jimmy Durante in the early thirties, but his erratic behaviour saw him in increasingly impoverished fare until he wound up hired to write other people's jokes. Don't feel too sorry for him, though, as in his final decade he was rediscovered by new generations and was making a living proving that no matter the ravages of time, he still had what it took to steal a scene, and at least he saw some of that newfound respect before he passed away. We have his silent body of work to remind us of his genius, and that is far more than many performers are granted.
[The Criterion Collection release The Cameraman on a Blu-ray packed with special features:
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.]