Joseph Frank 'Buster' Keaton was the silent comedy contemporary of Charles Chaplin and a looming influence on cinema's greatest action-comedy stars, like Jackie Chan. Where Chaplin tried to appeal to your sentiment, sometimes quite mawkishly, Buster, popularly called 'The Great Stone Face' for the unruffled expression he maintained throughout his movies, was more about pure comedy and outrageously risky stunts. In 1928, beset by the spiraling cost of making his films and the impending juggernaut of the talkies, he gave up his independent studio and signed on with Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer (MGM). The Cameraman was the first film Buster made for his new employers,
and ironically is regarded as his last great film.
Buster enters the picture as a street photographer peddling Tintype portraits. During a street parade he meets and is immediately attracted to Marceline Day, who works for a newsreel studio. To continue the acquaintance, Buster decides to become a news cameraman - he buys a beat-up old hand-crank and looks to freelance at her firm. He is initially quite inept at handling the camera and the boss dismisses his work (this is a bit of an inside joke, since the montages Buster makes are rather interesting surreal trips making use of double exposures, and varying the speed and direction of the action). But with Marceline's sympathetic goading, Buster persists; he also gets to court her in some amusing escapades at the local swimming pool (which the Mr. Bean TV series gleefully ripped off). His big moment comes when she hands him an exclusive tip about a gang war in Chinatown. Buster rushes off and covers the chaos with his customary athletic grace and daredevilry (one shot shows him cranking the camera even as the platform he is standing on comes crashing down). A few misunderstandings get in the way, but Buster finally wins the girl and his place as a bonafide cameraman. The Cameraman is a notch below his earlier productions like The General and Steamboat Bill Jr in terms of inventiveness and sheer chutzpah, but still a highly watchable and entertaining Buster Keaton picture with several memorable visual jokes and thrills.
Apparently, there was a bound script with contributions from a battery of house writers at MGM, which was against Buster's usual style of having a more diffuse narrative which they would then fill up with on-set improvisation, taking inspiration from the locations and props. But the difficulties of shooting on location in New York gave him the opportunity of convincing young studio head Irving Thalberg that he could make a more efficient picture if he were allowed to throw away the bound script and work with his own team. Sadly, despite the film's success (MGM apparently used it as a training film for their comedy division), this was the last time Buster got such a break, and his growing dissatisfaction coupled with domestic troubles and alcoholism led to his being marginalized as a film-maker. It was only much later that his mastery of visual comedy was rediscovered by film aficionados and he began to get the respect he deserved.