Buster Keaton’s The Camerman follows Keaton in his usual hapless self, this time as a tintype street photographer who falls for a woman working for a news photography company who makes newsreels. Keaton wants to get in on this racket so that he can get the girl. Doing so leads to the escapades you’d expect from Keaton as a small man getting outsized and bullied by larger men. His love has an interest from big strong handsome news photographer who pushes him around and doesn’t want Keaton in the office as all. Keaton can’t operate his camera. He keeps breaking the office door glass with the tripod. He has trouble with the police. He goes on a date with his girl to the pool, where he is forced to share a dressing room with a big guy and ends up with a gigantic swimming suit that falls off when he goes diving. Overall, I’d say the film has too much following the girl around and not enough winning her through learning how to film.
This gets to the film’s best scene and it’s biggest problem. The girl, mad at her brute suitor, gives a tip to Keaton about a Tong fight in Chinatown. Keaton filming this is really brilliant, with great action footage, excellent comedy, a monkey he has picked up on the way to help him, etc. But it also shows once again that Buster Keaton was a racist who was happy to use racial stereotypes in his films. Usually it’s racism toward African-Americans, but Chinese stereotypes are fair game too. While we can’t fully judge a comedian for using the comedic norms of their time, we can shake our head at how much Keaton’s reliance on racism undermines the watchability of his films. Chaplin, to my knowledge, never did this and I haven’t seen it in Harold Lloyd films either (although I’ve seen fewer of them).