The Cameraman (1928)

In 1928, just before making his last silent films, Buster Keaton moved from United Artists to MGM, a move that in retrospect ruined his career. In a very short time, he went from making immortal silent classics like The General (1926) and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) – films where he had total creative control – to acting in cheap comedies. In between, he got to do one single film for MGM in his own trademark style, The Cameraman.

Buster Keaton and Marceline Day in The Camerman (1928)

Keaton plays a still photographer who wants to become a newsreel cameraman. He also falls in love with a secretary at MGM, so he spends the rest of the film trying to impress both her and his boss. Further complications involve an ill-tempered policeman, a gang-war in Chinatown and an organ-grinder’s monkey.

It is interesting to compare this film with Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929). Even though they are vastly different films, they give much information about what camerawork was like in the 1920s. Note, for example, how light the cameras were. With the coming of sound, cameras had to be made noiseless, so they became much heavier. The advanced camerawork of the 1920s was not to be seen again for many decades.

The Cameraman was co-directed by Edward Sedgwick, who went on to direct several Buster Keaton comedies. Since Keaton had by that time lost his creative control, quality varied wildly, but for instance Speak Easily (1932) is worth watching.

This film is best enjoyed for its high comic and romantic values. Perhaps to an even higher degree than other Keaton films, this one features some excellent acting. In some scenes, the acting is very low-key, very beautiful, and really more reminiscent of what would be typical in Hollywood ten or fifteen years later.

Buster Keaton in The Cameraman (1928)

The Cameraman
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Year: 1928
Running time: 1 h 15 min
Director: Edward Sedgwick, Buster Keaton
Stars: Buster Keaton
Image quality: Good
Resolution: High (960×720)
Soundtrack: Excellent
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.1 G)

Chelovek s kino-apparatom (1929)

It is easy today to dismiss silent film as “sound film without sound”, but that is a mistake based on our preconceived notions. Silent film is, for a fact, a different medium, and when it works at its very best, that medium is not inferior to sound film. Just different.

In the late 1920s, just before the break-through of sound film, the silent film had its artistic peak. At that point, some directors were experimenting with silence as an added dimension to the film, putting the images and their inherent story-telling abilities more in focus. One of them was Russian Dziga Vertov with his Chelovek s kino-apparatom (Man with a Movie Camera).

The cameraman in Chelovek s kino-apparatom, aka Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

It is relevant to ask whether Chelovek s kino-apparatom is documentary or propaganda. Well, in a sense it is neither. And both. Less and more. To the extent that the film has a story, it is the story of a man who goes around with a movie camera, filming whatever he chances to find. An onrushing train. People in a car. Even a woman giving birth (which is one of the film’s most powerful scenes, incidentally). But this thematic thread is so thin that we, the viewers, tend to forget all about it in the fascination over the fantastic imagery and visual playfulness that holds the film together. Since the film contains practically no title cards, the film’s messages are conveyed solely by means of the images.

To state that Chelovek s kino-apparatom should be watched without a soundtrack is, of course, to stretch things a bit too far. Vertov intended the film to be viewed with instrumental accompaniment. But at the same time it must be remembered that each of the many soundtracks that have been produced for this film gives it a different flavour, and in effect creates a different film. Therefore, in a sense, it may not be altogether a bad thing that the version available at the Internet Archive is without a soundtrack. It creates an incentive to watch the film bare-bones, and will perhaps allow the viewer to see the scenes from a fresh perspective. One that would not be possible with a recently written soundtrack, one which carries with it the composer’s interpretation of the images.

This film is best enjoyed if you want to explore some of silent cinema’s greatest moments.

A childbirth in Chelovek s kino-apparatom, aka Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

Chelovek s kino-apparatom
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Year: 1929
Running time: 1 h 7 min
Language: Russian (English subtitles)
Directors: Dziga Vertov
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (620×418; not counting black border)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.9 G)

A Star is Born (1937)

A Star is Born is a film which should not be good. But it is.

The theme seems to be a perfectly hopeless one. Country girl goes to Hollywood, hoping to be a star of the movies. She succeeds. End of story. I mean, anyone knows that it is practically impossible to break into stardom without contacts, so a film with some big star (Janet Gaynor) pretending to struggle just has to be ridiculous, right? Indeed, much of the film is melodramatic, sometimes bordering on the pathetic.

Adolphe Menjou and Janet Gaynor in A Star is Born (1937)

So this could have been a disaster, but it is saved by mainly three things. First, the acting and directing are excellent. Gaynor succeeds in making the country girl in the big town believable (though a bit of an accent in the beginning would not have hurt), but above all Fredric March is brilliant as the leading male. The supporting cast is also very good, not least Adolphe Menjou (above) as the fatherly producer.

The second reason is the script. Witty, elegant and nicely paced, there are few dull moments here. In a lovely meta gimmick, the film even begins by zooming in on the first page of its own script.

Third, and perhaps most important: Beneath the melodramatic surface lies some real drama. This is most obvious in March’s exquisite portrayal of an alcoholic who has just passed his peak and is going downhill without even realising it.

The film has been remade at least twice. The 1954 remake with Judy Garland is also said to be very good.

This film is best enjoyed if you are into 1930s Hollywood celebrities. There are many inside jokes and references to actors and directors.

Janet Gaynor with an Oscar and Fredric March at the Academy Awards in A Star is Born (1937)

A Star is Born
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Year: 1937
Running time: 1 h 51 min
Director: William A. Wellman
Stars: Janet Gaynor, Fredric March
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: DivX (700 M)