Thursday, August 2, 2007

Movies: Cameraman and Speedy

These two great silents from 1928 are part of Film Forum's NYC Noir festival. One of the reviews on FF's website proclaims that Cameraman is "worth going out of your way for!" which seems like an odd plug, but New York boasts enough old movie fans that I did, in fact, need to go a bit out of my way to see this movie, waiting in line for forty minutes in the sweaty summer street. But the review was right; Speedy wasn't much worth going out of my way for, but I didn't have to; by the time it started, I was already in my seat, armed with a large popcorn, and still reeling from the awesomeness of Cameraman.

Buster Keaton is just bloody awesome. There is a wealth of expression in the tiniest of his tics, and he need only shift his eyes from one side to the other, or from up to down, to move us from bust-a-gut laughter to quiet, teary, empathy. In Cameraman, Keaton is a down-on-his-luck tintype photographer who takes ten cent portraits in the street when he sees a beautiful girl (the lovely and expressive Marceline Day). He finds out that she works for the news, and, desperate to win her affections, pawns his still camera for an old, broken-down movie camera so that he can compete with the other cameramen she works with. He undergoes one charming disaster after another: breaking the glass door of the newsroom with his camera's tripod again and again, making accidental double and triple exposures, and cranking his camera improperly so that his movies move forward and backward. He goes to Yankee Stadium to film a game only to find out that there's no game that day, and instead takes to the pitcher's mound himself, vamping up a hilarious mime of a game. The pretty girl has a sweet spot for him, though, and they go out on a date, walking through the streets and then going to the public swimming pool, where much hilarity ensues as Keaton and a brawnier fellow fight over a changing room and Keaton ends up in a swimsuit far too big for him, which he then, to even more riotous laughter, looses when he jumps off the diving board.

The pretty girl has a good heart, and,much to the chagrin of the top-dog cameraman at the office (who clearly has the hots for her) keeps trying to help Keaton get a good reel of film. She sneaks him a secret tip about a gang war to go down in Chinatown, and he goes down there to film it in one of the best riot scenes of all movie history. He even picks up a darling, mischievous monkey on the way, who makes mischief, but later saves the day, filming Keaton as he rows a boat out to save his sweetheart from drowning when she falls of off his rival's speedboat. This is one of the best silent movies ever made.

Speedy isn't as good, even if it does have a theoretically better plot. Speedy is a young man who doesn't have the dedication to hold any job down for more than a week; mostly, he's only interested in the Yankees. When we first see him (this is the movie's best scene), he's working as a soda jerk, making phone calls to his connection at Yankee Stadium between orders to find out the score, which he then spells out for the guys in the kitchen by lining up donuts (0), eclairs (1) and a half-eaten pretzel (3) in the two-tiered pastry window. He quickly loses that job and takes another, driving a cab, but can't seem to have any luck finding a passenger, until he picks up Babe Ruth, drives him to Yankee Stadium, and abandons his cab in the middle of the street to watch the game. Unfortunately, his seat is right behind that of his boss, and he loses that job, too.

Meanwhile, his girlfriend's grandpa runs the very last horse-drawn train in the city, and the railroad company has been trying to buy him out so that they can take over his track. That car is his life, and it performs double-duty as the clubhouse for all of the neighborhood workers, so he refuses to give it up without a fight, turning down their offers for piddly sums and holding out for a bigger payment of $10,000. Speedy, seeing in the paper that without grandpa's track, the railroad merger will never go through, changes grandpa's request to $70,000. Outraged, the railroad boss decides to engage in a bit of foul play, stealing the car so that it won't be able to operate for 24 hours, thereby causing gramps to lose his right to the track. Speedy saves the day, locating the cart and racing it against the clock back to the track.

This movie features another great riot scene, in which the local tradesmen (some of them old enough that they have their Civil War uniforms) battle the bad guys in the street, and it also features an awesome long Coney Island sequence earlier on, when Speedy takes his girl out for a date and they eat their way along the boardwalk, win more prizes than they can carry home, and are adopted by a tenaciously cute dog who will end up helping Speedy save grandpa's train.

Coney Island, Yankee Stadium, Chinatown; pools, taxis, horses, dogs, soda fountains, and the subway: new New York isn't so different than old New York, although it seems less romantic these days. Although I'm certain that if Buster Keaton were around right now, it would be just as romantic as it was.

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