Cinematic Pugilism: The Chaplin v. Keaton Debate

Buster Keaton's waiting for the gags to explode in his masterpiece, "The General".

“Yeah, but they’re both great, aren’t they?” –Anonymous friend of mine, whom I guess is right.

Gary Cooper v. John Wayne. Bette Davis v. Joan Crawford. Robert DeNiro v. Al Pacino. Adam Sandler v. Jim Carrey.

Those battles never existed, did they? Throughout cinematic history, there have been pairs of actors, actresses, comedians and cowboys who thrived at the same time, invited comparisons and often felt a sense of lingering competitiveness amongst themselves. But with critics and geeks there’s really only one raging battle of the movies: who’s the better silent film comedian, Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin?

Perhaps this struggle is only kept alive by the fans of the Great Stone Face, Buster Keaton. Like the denizens of St. Paul in their struggle to be noticed past Minneapolis’ bright lights (and trust me, that’s a sore spot for St. Paulites), or the seemingly endless rivalry between the Red Sox and the Yankees, Keaton fans (and I count myself among them) feel a bit inferior. For in terms of financial success and cinematic influence, there is no debate: Chaplin is the winner, hands down.

Chaplin’s movies were infinitely more popular worldwide, and the Tramp was truly the first international superstar. Chaplin may have been the most popular movie star of all time. Comedians today mimic the Tramp.

Keaton, on the other hand, was a popular actor in his day, made a few hits, but also made quite a few flops, and he was beset by a raging streak of self-destructiveness. His early movies made money, and then he hit the wall of The General, the most expensive silent comedy of all time (and adjusting for inflation the most expensive ever), and a tremendous flop. It’s also his masterpiece.

For the record, I’ll take five minutes of The General over Chaplin’s entire body of work.

So you see my prejudice right away. I’ve tried to enjoy Chaplin, even though for the longest time I avoided his movies. One, I didn’t like the ones I had seen (The Gold Rush, Modern Times, and Monsieur Verdoux), and two, I wanted to see them on the big screen. Well, I got my chance last year, catchingĀ Limelight at New York’s Film Forum and a good number of his other movies at the Trylon microcinema in my hometown of Minneapolis last November.

Having sat through Chaplin’s Circus, Modern Times (again), The Gold Rush (again), The Kid, City Lights, and The Great Dictator, I have come to understand the appeal of Chaplin. He was gifted physical comedian, and it’s true, there’s a certain poetry in some of his movies. On the big screen, I was struck by the hilarity of some of his movies, a quality that had eluded me until then. I was especially taken by The Circus, which was a hell of a lot of fun… for about three-quarters of the movie.

The Circus typifies the good and the bad of Chaplin. The facts: at a Coney Island-style amusement park, a man lifts the wallet of an unsuspecting sap. After being pursued by the cops, the pickpocket drops the wallet, the Tramp picks it up and uses the money to buy hot dogs and more. Well, naturally he gets caught up in the chase, and while trying to escape capture, ends up running into the big top of a local circus. His antics make the audience roar with laughter–a roaring that has not been heard under this particular canvas for some time.

So the manager of said circus, a nasty jerk who likes to whip his own daughter and deny her food when she screws something up (which she does frequently), tricks the Tramp into performing without his, the Tramp’s, knowing it. Of course, our hero falls in love with the girl. Of course, the girl falls in love with a thick nothing of a man, a tightrope walker with about as much charisma as a shucked clam. Of course, the Tramp willingly steps aside, since he is no good for the girl, his being a Tramp and all.

Here’s a segment from The Circus, which I think sums up its brilliance… and its many failings.

Here, Chaplin shows off his chops as a master comedian, and what amazes me is both his inventiveness in physical and intellectual comedy. My favorite scene in the film is when the evil Circus Proprietor (he has no name in the movie) tries to get the Tramp to learn a skit. In a brilliant little bit, we see the sketch, and I’ll be damned if it isn’t a great riff on the William Tell legend. One clown has to shoot an apple off the bean of another with an arrow. Oldest skit in the book, done beautifully.

Now Chaplin comes in and wreaks utter havoc with said skit, bending this gag like a jazz musician twists a standard–the apple’s wormy, and besides, he prefers a banana–that banana laying atop the Tramp’s head is hilarious, I think. And it’s graceful, and it fits perfectly into the plot.

A friend of mine and critic in his own right, Ian Whitney, points out one of the great problems in The Circus in his blog, Corn & Death. There’s a truly amazing scene later in the film, in which Chaplin has to take over the tightrope walker’s act, which actually you could see coming a mile away (and in Chaplin there’s way too much of that.) Well, the Tramp is attacked by an angry pack of monkeys. It’s an amazing visual gag, mostly because he seems to be getting chewed apart (almost literally) by these freaking little beasts. But it comes out of nowhere–Whitney correctly points out that Chaplin’s character opens a trunk, and voila!, monkeys. What? Many of his movies have gags that just leap out of nowhere, whether they make sense or not. They can be funny, yes, but then the movies come off as nothing more than a loosely connected series of gags, not much better than your average Saturday Night Live skit film, like Wayne’s World.

But Chaplin’s two biggest failings, for me, are his nearly grotesque sentimentality and his treatment of women. In the clip above, we see the Tramp and the girl first meeting–she’s starving, and eats some of his food. Look at her there–she’s a cipher, nodding stupidly at whatever the Tramp’s saying to her. It doesn’t get better: the two of them have an obvious bond, and soon he falls for her. No big deal–it’s not as if Chaplin’s ugly or deformed or ancient (and not that those haven’t accounted for some dynamite romances, right?) But no, the girl falls in love, at first sight, with the tightrope walker, who is nothing more than a thick, slick jerk.

The Tramp, of course, loves the girl and knows she is not right for him–he’s a tramp, and poor as stones. Again, I say: what?! Since when has a person’s poverty interfered with love? From Romeo and Juliet to La Strada, romance blossoms and should be pursued, and not being financially sound isn’t anything but a plot twist to make the romance exciting. Here it’s the opposite–Chaplin’s character truly wants her to go with that tightrope walker. Chaplin aches for us all to feel deeply and profoundly sorry for him and his great sacrifice, as he works his tail off to get the girl in the hands of the tightrope walker, who, in an incredibly creepy scene, accepts his “prize” from her abusive father.

Chaplin doesn’t seem to get that this is also an insult to the girl, who apparently is only smart enough to go after a physical specimen like the tightrope walker, and not a man who is kind, funny, stimulating, and actually kind of handsome in his own right. Keaton’s women were equals, and there’s often furious arguments between him and his leading ladies onscreen. Chaplin puts his women on a pedestal and then essentially tells them to shut up. Keaton’s women would rather help him build his house or run his train than get that treatment.

Again, and sadly (to me), this is where Chaplin beats Keaton, at least in terms of his influence: because we can relate to this self-pity, and though we (and I especially) admire and love Keaton, Keaton did not pander to our worst, but expected us to be our best. Often we don’t want our best, we want to feel sorry for ourselves.

For this is Chaplin’s biggest (not greatest) legacy: excessive sentimentality. Robin Williams’ worst movies, Jim Carrey’s, hell, Jerry Lewis’ The Day the Clown Cried and Roberto Benigni’s Life if Beautiful all owe a teary-eyed, blubbering debt to Chaplin. Wall*E is Chaplin (and I don’t consider that a good thing.) Chaplin indulges in this excessive sentimentality in every feature he’s ever made, and in abundance within those pictures. Film comedians through the ages have made it a point to do the same.

Keaton, on the other hand, is impossible to emulate. For starters, the Great Stone Face, that grim visage of Keaton’s that faced the great trickster god was his and his alone. How do you imitate that? By not laughing at anything? It only works on Keaton. At the Trylon’s Chaplin screenings, a guy showed up dressed as the Tramp. One of our volunteers wore a Keaton’s flat hat, but it was hardly the same. Compare this look to the former, and you can see why Chaplin’s been imitated by Robert Downey Jr. and Johnny Depp, among others… but Keaton, well, he’s been portrayed once, by Donald O’Connor. The less that’s said about that, the better.

I’ve read a good half dozen of biographies of the man, and the face beguiles everyone. One biographer suggested that it emerged as a result of a lifetime of beating at the hands of his father; another posits that Keaton couldn’t read, and the pain and embarrassment is reflected there. Whatever the case (and no one seems to know for certain) it is not something that can used by anyone but Keaton–if other comedians were to be that dead-pan, people would chalk it up to that individual’s own act, and not compare it to Keaton. We’re all deadpan at times.

Keaton’s attitude is also difficult to emulate. Throughout his pictures, a theme emerges: a guy, Keaton, is somehow on the wrong end of things, either shunned by his girl, newly married but trying to build a new house with wrong instructions, out of place on a cattle ranch, rejected by his town because he’s not in the Army fighting the Civil War, you name it. Fate has it in for him and chaos ensues. There’s little original about that. But Keaton responded to these troubles first by not allowing himself to wallow in self-pity (distinctly different than Chaplin’s response), and then by taking a deep breath, and getting down to work. Would that we could all do that.

His masterpiece, The General, exemplifies this. Johnny Gray (Keaton) is in love with a true Southern Belle, Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack). When war is declared, the whole of this little Southern town goes to enlist. Johnny tries to become a soldier, but because he’s a railroad engineer, it’s determined that his job is essential to the war effort, and he’s rejected. Annabelle shuns him. Johnny, despondant, returns to work.

He’s good at his work. So good, in fact, that when those bastard Yankees steal his prized locomotive, The General of the title, and Johnny gives chase. What a chase! Keaton is incredibly heroic, inventive, and he fills the story with gags that build to tremendous climaxes, like the famous scene involving a cannon attached to the train, that quickly goes south for our hero (it’s at roughly the six minute mark in the following video.)

We wallow in self-pity over booze, at home alone, thinking to ourselves how life has dealt us a bad hand, how the girl or guy who dumped us didn’t see all the loveliness we draped upon them when they weren’t looking. Chaplin speaks to that–hell, it’s almost his raison d’etre, the driving force behind his movies (City Lights, Limelight, The Kid, etc.) Keaton has no self-pity–and how do you compare yourself to that? How do you rise to the occasion as often as his character did? Alone and unloved, unadmired, laughed at, Keaton’s man single-handedly drives herds of cattle through the city streets (Go West). He singlehandedly saves a locomotive from evil northerners (The General). The man leaves his life of luxury behind to become a great boxer or the captain of a ship (Battling Butler–underrated–and The Navigator.) When trouble hits Keaton, he shrugs it off, rolls up his sleeves, and gets to work. And he gives us just enough clues to show us that this particular character is perfectly capable of rising to the occasion–he’s no superman, just a guy with a particular set of talents that he’ll get to use in short order. Keaton doesn’t shout and cry and stomp around, break things and shout at the cats… well, Chaplin doesn’t do that either, that’s what I do. But you get my point.

I’ll set aside the technical aspects of this debate–many Keaton defenders point out the beauty of his films, and how marvelously directed they are. I agree, but I also think Chaplin was a guy who didn’t need such technical prowess. His work was typically indoors, typically in one room (even if that room was a big top or a factory), and didn’t require the complicated camera movement of, say, The General. Like Howard Hawks, I think Chaplin’s camerawork tends to emphasize the people in each scene, whereas I would say that Keaton has Spielberg’s (or maybe Fred Zinneman’s) wonderful sense of movement and grace. I don’t think one is necessarily better than the other.

I’ll also set aside the fact that Keaton famously did all his own stunts, something no American actor could even do nowadays, thanks to the liability issues (and that’s the reason Jackie Chan doesn’t make movies here–no one’ll insure him!) But to say that Chaplin is less of a shining star because he was unwilling to break his neck (something that Keaton literally did on the set of Sherlock, Jr.) is unfair.

Truly, Chaplin and Keaton are both great, and perhaps shouldn’t be compared… but they are, in part because they’re two of the few filmmakers who emerged from the silent era and are still revered today. However, I’ll always take Keaton, in spite of the fact–or perhaps because of the fact–that I’m never quite the man he’d like me to be, and can only hope that I can face down my various troubles with his amazing level-headedness, and DIY attitude. When I watch Keaton, I feel like getting up, getting out, laughing it up and being a part of something larger than myself–Keaton was also a man who was eager to help out, eager to make a marriage work, to help the Rebel cause, you name it. Chaplin rejects the world too often, the way we all do when we’re sorry for ourselves. For that self-pity is, by its very nature, alienating. Chaplin loved to feel alienated. Maybe that speaks to us in the dark of the cinema.

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