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)

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Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)

The term “Mars curse” originally referred to a large number of failed Mars space missions, but has lately come to be more associated with a line of box office crashes for movies connected with the red planet. In reality, of course, the “curse” is just Hollywood’s lame excuse for a combination of bad movies and bad marketing. In any event, Ridley Scott’s The Martian now seems to have lifted the “curse”, so perhaps this opens the gates for more Mars films in the future?

The past has certainly seen its share, and the Internet Archive has a number of interesting movies with a Mars connection. I have written about several of them in the past, and will doubtlessly have reason to come back to others in the future. One of them happens to be a film which is thematically very closely related to The Martian, namely Robinson Crusoe on Mars.

Paul Mantee in Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)

In this film, Paul Mantee plays the astronaut Cristopher Draper, who is stranded on Mars after a near collision with an asteroid forces him to abandon his spaceship. His only companion on the planet is the monkey Mona.

Scientifically, Robinson Crusoe on Mars was not terribly accurate even when it was made. This incarnation of the planet has the Martian version of aurora borealis, even though Mars has no magnetic field to produce such a phenomenon, and considerable volcanic activity. I find this easy to oversee with, as also with the nationalistic and religious fervour which sometimes shines through.

Throughout the first hour we follow Draper’s struggle for survival through a combination of luck and inventiveness (and a dose of divine providence). In spite of very slow pacing, this was the part I liked best about the film. Even though we know today that no-one could walk around on Mars in a t-shirt, taking the occasional sip from his oxygen tank, it is nevertheless fascinating to see how the protagonist manages to overcome what initially appears to be insurmountable obstacles. After that first hour the plot takes a sudden twist, unfortunately somewhat for the worse. The last part remains enjoyable, but is somewhat more taxing on the willingness to suspend disbelief.

This film is best enjoyed for the good camerawork and for several very nice matte paintings, combining to create a fascinating and partly alien Martian landscape.

The twin moons of Mars, Phobos and Deimos, in Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)

Robinson Crusoe on Mars
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Year: 1964
Running time: 1 h 50 min
Director: Byron Haskins
Stars: Paul Mantee
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Low (720×306; not counting black border)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Cinepack (1.6 G)