The Cameraman is an ode to the world of filmmaking. Like Sherlock Jr. this is a film about an artist looking inward at himself and his art. It was Keaton’s first film for MGM and not directed by him. However, while officially directed by Edward Sedgwick, Keaton’s foot prints are all over the film. Buster, who liked to improvise, was forced by the MGM honchos to have a completed script along with all the jokes and pratfalls worked out in advance. Still, there is a feeling that Keaton managed to work in some inspiring improvisational moments during the making of the film. This despite all the corporate overseeing and demands. The Cameraman ranks up there with Keaton’s best work. The corporate interference was sadly a sign of things to come.
Buster is a tintype photographer selling pictures on the streets of New York. He falls in love with a pretty girl named Sally (Marceline Day) who works in the MGM Newsreel Department. In his attempt to win her over, he applies for a job as a newsreel cameraman. Only problem is, he needs his own movie camera. Basically broke, he can’t afford a new one (a sign in a photography store window states the cost of a new movie camera is $2,500.) All he can barely afford is a used old fashion hand cranked box camera. Other cameramen, including the arrogant Stagg (Harold Godwin) laugh and make cruel fun of him. Stagg also has eyes for Sally.
Encouraged by Sally to go out and photograph some exciting events that will impress the boss, Buster comes back for his “film interview” only to reveal his lack of knowledge in using his new camera. The footage is filled with double exposures (a battleship floating down a NYC street), film running backward and other cinematic tricks that if done intentional would be considered avant-garde. In Buster’s case, he is laughed out of the screening room by the boss and others. Sally catches him in the hall as he leaves dejected. She tells him not to quit and also gives him hope of a possible date when he managed to get the courage to ask. Keep trying she tells him. Quitters never succeed.
Buster does what she says, and it leads to one of the movie’s most brilliant sequences. He goes to the Bronx, to the original Yankee Stadium to film the game, only to be told by a grounds keeper, the Yanks are in St. Louis today. So there’s Buster with his camera, alone in the empty stadium standing on the pitching mound. And so Buster, like any red blooded American boy might do, begins to imagine himself playing baseball in the legendary Yankee stadium. He becomes a one man baseball team in the most famous ballpark ever. Remember, this film was made in 1928. The 1927 Yankees were and are still considered by many to be the greatest team ever assembled. The first six hitters in the lineup, Earl Combs, Mark Koenig, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Bob Meusel and Tony Lazzeri were known as “Murderer’s Row.” But now we have Buster on the mound pitching. He quickly turns into a one man team, hitting, fielding, running, sliding into home in a close play. It’s all smoothly and dare I say, poetically improvised as he transitions from one role to another.
Later there’s a community pool sequence, he gets that date with Sally, that’s highlighted by a scene where Buster has to share a tiny clothes changing room with another man. The scene is as funny as it is odd. The final part of the film brings on a monkey that almost steals the film from Buster. It enters into Buster’s life when he accidently knocks out an organ grinder’s monkey. Thinking it dead, a policemen forces Buster to pay the organ grinder for the dead monkey and then tells him its yours now and he needs to take it away. Almost miraculously, moments later the monkey who was only knocked out rises from the dead. He and Buster become a team.
Sally, still attempting to help Buster, tells him about a potential Tong War in Chinatown during a celebratory parade. Buster and the monkey quickly find themselves in the middle of the parade and worse, the war. When he brings the footage he captured to MGM though, he finds the reel in the camera in empty! Sally almost loses her job over this since she never told the other cameramen, hoping Buster would get an exclusive.
Stagg, Buster’s rival for Sally’s affection takes her to a local regatta. On the sidelines is Buster attempting to film the event. As it looks like life it going completely against our hero, Buster’s new buddy, the monkey, saves the day, romantically and professionally. Stagg’s boat overturns tossing both him and Sally into the ocean. Stagg swims to shore leaving Sally out there on her own to potentially drown. Buster gallantly swims out there to save her only find out Sally, who passed out, thinks it was Stagg who saved her. Stagg, holding her in his arms, doesn’t deny anything making her continue to believe he was her life saving hero. Buster soon discovers that his little furry buddy had earlier switched reels in the camera. The parade and Tong War footage is all preserved. Not only that, but the monkey, a pretty good cameraman himself, photographed Buster saving the girl exposing Stagg for the fraud his is.
In 1948, the film was an unofficially remade as Watch the Birdie with Red Skelton. Buster, still working for MGM, supervised some of the gags.
 Tintype was a cheaper and quicker early photographic process than the better known Daguerreotype. A photographer could take the picture, develop it and finish it off having it ready for the customers in only minutes. Almost, an early version of the Polaroid.