Walt Strony plays for “The Cameraman”
Buster Keaton’s favorite film, “The Cameraman,” will screen for FREE at 4 p.m. Sunday, July 22, at PEACE. Nationally acclaimed organist Walt Strony will perform a score he has assembled especially for the film.
Keaton directed and starred in “The Cameraman,” released in 1928 by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, now known as MGM. It marked the pinnacle of Keaton’s creative genius, displaying both the comedy and the pathos of “Great Stone Face.” Organist Strony plans live music that will underscore the emotions and actions on screen.
“It’s one of my favorite Buster Keaton films because it’s funny, yet it shows an emotional side to Keaton that you almost never see” in other films, Strony says. “Keaton is the master of deadpan humor, and yet there are scenes where his facial expressions show genuine sadness — but, then it gets funny again!
“And in true silent-era fashion, the major battle scene during tong war has gun smoke everywhere and windows breaking with people shooting at each other,” Strony adds. “Yet, no one seems to get wounded!”
Experience the excitement, emotion and energy of silent film the way it was meant to be!
A free reception will follow the concert-screening. “The Camerman” is a production of Arts @ PEACE, the church’s program of cultural events both secular and sacred in western Nevada County.
Strony is returning silent film to western Nevada County after an absence of many decades in the Arts @ PEACE series, “Silent Movies with Walt Strony.” He performs at silent film festivals around the nation.
Peace is at 828 W. Main St., near downtown Grass Valley. The church offers ample parking and easy handicapped access.
Watch for the monkey
The premise of “Cameraman” relies on a news format that many locals will remember: the newsreel. These short films depicting current events typically opened every movie-house feature and were common in the United States until the late 1960s.
“Keaton’s character is trying to break into that career. He falters until, by chance, the girl he had fallen in love with and who works at a newsreel company gives him a tip that there may be a tong war,” Strony says. The film also is famous for a hilarious scene in a beachside changing room that underscores Keaton’s emphasis on sight gags. And, a trained monkey becomes his sidekick, playing a major role in the action.
Strony plans to highlight the comedy in that and other scenes, notably the tong fight, by contrasting it with appropriate and authentic silent movie music. Event-goers can listen for less-familiar selections from Amilcare Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours” and Albert Ketèlbey’s “In a Chinese Temple Garden.”
“The music is very campy,” Strony promises. “This is pure comedy.”
Keaton: Career change and regret
Earlier this year, Strony presented “The General,” also made in 1928. It’s one of Keaton’s most popular films and certainly his most extravagant.
Yet it was “The Cameraman” that the great silent-era actor called “one of my pet pictures,” according to film critic and historian Dennis Harvey.
“Many critics say ‘Cameraman’ is Keaton’s greatest film. It’s certainly his last great film,” Strony says.
“Cameraman” was Keaton’s first film after moving in 1928 to the Metro-Goldwin-Mayer film company, created by a 1924 merger. It was the last film Keaton directed himself, when he still had full artistic control over the entire film-making process. He used that freedom to magnificent effect, Strony said. But after “Cameraman,” MGM executives forced Keaton to comply with the whims of often-forgettable directors in subsequent silent and talking films.
“’The Cameraman’ signaled the end of an era for Buster Keaton… and the dawn of a painful decline,” Harvey wrote.
Keaton himself called his contract with MGM “the worst mistake of my life,” in his 1960 autobiography, “My Wonderful World of Slapstick,” according to Harvey.
The first ‘network news’
The newsreel format that provides the premise of “The Cameraman” was invented in 1908 in Paris by cinematic pioneer Charles Pathé.
Newsreels offered the first film depiction of news events, using the same technology that birthed silent film. They offered a kind of cinematic magazine. The format was short documentary-style clips showing news, features and current events. They usually ran just before the featured film at cinemas, but some movie houses ran newsreels all day.
America’s first newsreel company was established in 1910 by William Fox, a Hungarian immigrant whose enterprise lives on as 21st Century Fox, parent corporation of Fox News Channel. William Randolph Hearst, father of today’s Hearst Corp. newspapers (including the San Francisco Chronicle), also had an early hand in newsreels.
The format continued to offer news and features until displaced by television news broadcasting. Newsreels had faded from the United States by the late 1960s. They lasted until 1979 in England and continued into the 1990s in some other countries such as Cuba.
Tong war makes ‘Cameraman’ news
“The Cameraman” also portrays a cultural phenomenon that contemporary viewers would have seen developing for the previous three decades: Violent clashes by organized gangs of Chinese immigrants.
By 1882, Chinese arriving in America were forbidden by law from becoming citizens and marginalized by the legal system. So immigrants formed mutual aid societies, including tongs. The Chinese word “tong” means “chamber” and in the United States described secret brotherhoods.
Tongs soon became violent criminal syndicates promoting and protecting gambling, slavery, prostitution, opium, smuggling, protection rackets and graft. Four major “wars” broke out among the competing gangs in New York City starting in 1900, according to historian Scott D. Seligman.
The last one erupted in late 1924, starting in Cleveland’s Chinatown and engulfing Chinese immigrant communities across the nation. A large group of young and disaffected tong members defected from one major organization to join their rival tong, according to author Erick Kelly of Cleveland Magazine.
Tong violence led to federal mediation attempts and continued into the 1930s. Criminal activity by at least one of the descendants of the gangs depicted in “The Cameraman” has continued, with drug trafficking arrests reported in Portland, Ore., in 2012, according to The Oregonian.