The Cameraman was Keaton’s first film with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. It is considered by fans and critics to be Keaton still in top form, and it was added to the National Film Registry in 2005 as being deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
Within a little over a year, however, MGM would take away Keaton’s creative control over his pictures, thereby causing drastic and long-lasting harm to his career. Keaton was later to call the move to MGM “the worst mistake of my career.”
Buster, a sidewalk tintype portrait photographer in New York City, develops a crush on Sally, a secretary who works for MGM Newsreels. To be near her, he purchases an old film camera, emptying his bank account, and attempts to get a job as one of MGM’s cameramen. Harold, an MGM cameraman who has designs on Sally himself, mocks his ambition.
Sally, however, encourages Buster and suggests he film anything and everything. Buster’s first attempts show his total lack of experience. He double exposes or over exposes much of the footage, and the rest is simply no good. Despite this setback, Sally agrees to go out with Buster, after her Sunday date cancels. They go to the city plunge (pool), where Buster gets involved in numerous mishaps. Later, Harold offers Sally a ride home; Buster has to sit in the rumble seat, where he gets drenched in the rain.
The next day, Sally gives him a hot tip she has just received that something big is going to happen in Chinatown. In his rush to get there, he accidentally runs into an organ grinder, who falls and apparently kills his monkey. A nearby cop makes Buster pay for the monkey and take its body with him. The monkey turns out only to be dazed and joins Buster on his venture.
In Chinatown, Buster films the outbreak of a Tong War, narrowly escaping death on several occasions. At the end, he is rescued from Tong members by the timely arrival of the police, led by a cop who had been the unintentional victim of several of Buster’s antics over the last few days. The cop tries to have him committed to the mental hospital, but Buster makes his escape with his camera intact.
Returning to MGM, Buster and the newsreel company’s boss are dismayed to find that he apparently forgot to load film into his camera. When Sally finds herself in trouble for giving Buster the tip, Buster offers to make amends by leaving MGM alone once and for all.
Buster returns to his old job, but does not give up on filming, setting up to record a boat race. He then discovers that he has Tong footage after all; the mischievous monkey had switched the reels. Sally and Harold are speeding along in one of the boats. When Harold makes too sharp a turn, the two are thrown into the river. Harold saves himself, but Sally is trapped by the circling boat. Buster stops filming to jump in and rescues her. The monkey gets behind the camera to film the daring rescue. When Buster rushes to a drug store to get medical supplies to revive her, Harold returns and takes credit for the rescue. The two go off, leaving the broken-hearted Buster behind.
Buster decides to send his Tong footage to MGM free of charge. The boss decides to screen it for Harold and Sally for laughs, but is thrilled by what he sees, calling it the best camerawork he has seen in years. They also see footage of Buster’s boat footage and the monkey’s shot of Buster’s rescue of Sally. The boss sends Sally to get Buster. She tells him he is in for a great reception. Buster assumes a ticker-tape parade is in his honor, whereas it is really for Charles Lindbergh.