The Cameraman. Directed by Edward Sedgwick (and Buster Keaton, uncredited). This was Buster Keaton’s first film after signing with MGM; unfortunately, it is also his last masterpiece. Working for MGM removed his artistic freedom. Added to the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry in 2005, The Cameraman is full of great gags but it is also a sensitive, deeply romantic film. Buster’s love for Sally (a winning Marceline Day) is so pure and innocent that you can’t help but root for him from the get-go. The scenes in the pool changing room and swimming in the pool are uproarious, demonstrating Buster’s physicality. Also of interest in the film: Buster’s expressive face, which he put to use more than usual, allowing his big doe eyes to convey happiness, hope and despair better than any smile could. (There’s a shot of him on a beach that is absolutely heartbreaking.) He also involves a bit of anger – albeit hilarious anger – in the pool changing room scene. I must also mention Josephine, the capuchin monkey whose face is just as emotionally engaging as Keaton’s. (You can read a little more about her here.)
The Crowd. Directed by King Vidor. The star of The Crowd, James Murray, lead a short and sad life. He had parts in other big films – Rose-Marie with Joan Crawford, The Big City and Thunder with Lon Chaney, Kick In with Clara Bow, Frisco Jenny with Ruth Chatterton, Central Airport with Richard Barthelmess – but alcoholism ruined him and he drowned in the Hudson River in 1936. On a more positive note, the film’s leading lady (and Mrs. King Vidor at the time), Eleanor Boardman, lived to be 93 (she passed away in 1991). Both Murray and Boardman are naturalistic and sympathetic as a husband and wife struggling through the troubles of a working-class life in New York City. The film boasts excellent cinematography by Henry Sharp (The Black Pirate, Duck Soup, It’s a Gift). The Crowd was nominated for two Oscars at the first ceremony: Best Picture (Unique and Artistic Production) and Best Director (Dramatic Picture), losing to Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans for the former nomination and Frank Borzage (7th Heaven) for the latter. However, like Sunrise, the Library of Congress added The Crowd to the National Film Registry in its first year, 1989.
The Man Who Laughs. Directed by Paul Leni. I have been a fan of Conrad Veidt since I was fifteen, when I saw The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari on DVD. Since then I have taken it upon myself to see not only his 40s classics like The Thief of Bagdad, Whistling in the Dark and Casablanca but also his lesser-known efforts like The Two Brothers, Rome Express and Dark Journey. In The Man Who Laughs, Veidt is in love with the delicately beautiful Mary Philbin (who played Christine in 1925’s The Phantom of the Opera) but Veidt’s character has a hideous deformity: his mouth is carved into a permanent smile. (The look inspired Bob Kane’s creation of the Joker. Here are some shots of Veidt with his grin both covered and uncovered.) Leni utilized the German Expressionist style when directing Backstairs, the Rebus shorts and Waxworks (starring Veidt alongside Emil Jannings, Werner Krauss and William Dieterle) in his native Germany before coming to America to do The Cat and the Canary, The Chinese Parrot (now lost), The Man Who Laughs and The Last Warning. Before his career could really take off, Leni died from blood poisoning in 1929 at the early age of 44. Had he lived, perhaps he might have been given the chance to do Dracula or Frankenstein.
Show People. Directed by King Vidor. Added to the National Film Registry in 2003, this romantic comedy stars Marion Davies and William Haines. Haines, whose career was prematurely ended by his refusal to hide his homosexuality and relationship with Jimmie Shields, shines as Billy Boone, an aw-shucks guy working as a comedic, pie-in-the-face kind of actor. He gets Davies, playing the equally alliterative Peggy Pepper, her first job in the business. Haines provides the emotional core of the film, particularly when pining for sweetheart Davies. Show People is crammed with cameos from great stars and personalities, including Renée Adorée, Eleanor Boardman, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, John Gilbert, William S. Hart, Mae Murray, Loeulla Parsons, Norma Talmadge and King Vidor himself. Also of note: the film was edited by the unsung talent Hugh Wynn (1897-1936), who also edited the aforementioned films The Cameraman and The Crowd, along with the King Vidor classics The Big Parade, La Bohème, The Patsy, Hallelujah! and The Champ, the Greta Garbo vehicles Love, A Woman of Affairs, Anna Christie, Romance and The Painted Veil and other MGM hits like He Who Gets Slapped (his first film), The Scarlet Letter, The Divorcee, A Free Soul, Sadie McKee and Mad Love.
Steamboat Bill, Jr. Directed by Charles Reisner (and Buster Keaton, uncredited). Another Keaton classic from 1928, this wacky comedy has Buster’s effete William Canfield, Jr. returning home from college sporting a mustache and a beret – Keaton doesn’t even have to do anything in order for the look to be funny. He drives his father (Ernest Torrence) nuts with his fey mannerisms, though he eventually redeems himself by working on his father’s boat and falling in love with sweet hometown girl Marion Byron. Steamboat Bill, Jr. features the famous hurricane scene in which the front of a house falls down on Keaton, who’s left standing in the spot where the one window is. The film shows off Keaton’s genius for physical comedy and pratfalls. While I prefer The Cameraman, Buster Keaton certainly had a great year in 1928 film. I don’t like to make comparisons, but I think he’s my favorite of the three big silent comedians. Don’t get me wrong; Lloyd is a close second and Chaplin could also be great (my favorite is City Lights), but Keaton’s films are the ones I most enjoy watching and re-watching.