Friday, November 20, 2009

Why Buster Keaton Is Better Than Charlie Chaplin


Earlier this week Sean posted a reasoned, well thought-out, but ultimately misguided essay on Charlie Chaplin's superiority. I am now charged with the thankless task of setting him straight.


Buster Keaton's Sherlock, Jr. is the most sustained forty-five minutes of comic timing, cinematic invention and boundless creativity I have ever witnessed on film. In the eighty-five years since its release, the film has been imitated and spoofed endlessly but no one has come close to equaling its distinct brilliance. Keaton was an innovator, a genius and a clown of the first rank. When he was at the top of his game, which he was for over a decade, he was untouchable, even by the world's biggest movie star.

Certainly Keaton's career did not have the longevity of Chaplin's but that is far from Keaton's fault. I find the argument of quantity to be ridiculous and a completely baseless way of judging the merits of both geniuses. Had Keaton the resources of wealth and critical acclaim that Chaplin received during his career, he may very well have been able to continue producing his films independently well into the sound era. Sadly that was not the case. During his lifetime Keaton not only trailed behind Chaplin in box office draw, he followed the mediocre Harold Lloyd as well. The last three films Keaton produced independently, including the two masterpieces Steamboat Bill, Jr. and the General, were huge critical and commercial flops upon initial release. Chaplin may very well be timeless but Keaton was most certainly ahead of his time. These financial failures all but bankrupted Keaton and forced him to look for outside support for his work.


It was at the end of the 1920s after a decade of making the most forward-thinking pictures anyone had ever produced that Keaton signed a disastrous contract with MGM, a decision he would later consider the worst mistake of his life. Like their signing of the Marx Brothers a decade later, the MGM partnership started off entirely promising with the fantastic feature The Cameraman (suspiciously absent from Sean's dubious ranking of the artists' work, the film is easily as good as the Circus). Unfortunately after this last burst of creative freedom, MGM straitjacketed Keaton to their whims, ultimately relegating him to second banana roles in Jimmy Durante pictures, a place where Keaton's numerous talents were not given the least bit of opportunity to shine. There was no room for improvisation and the comedy was verbal, not physical. The studio confines and his crumbling marriage drove Keaton to drink and his alcoholism further crippled his output through the thirties and forties. But when he was given the opportunity to be creative, Keaton still showed that his genius was still very much intact. The fact that he managed to keep up with Chaplin in Limelight twenty years after his last significant work is a testament to Keaton's ability as much it is to Chaplin's graciousness in inviting Keaton to work on the film.

I have no qualms with Chaplin's sentimentality. I cried at the trailer for WALL*E for goodness sake. No, it's Chaplin's self-consciousness that often puts me at a distance. Being the biggest movie star of all time (a fact that will never change), Chaplin was practically drowning in accolades, largely to his detriment. Early on in his career, as highbrow critics began expounding on his inimitable genius (which I will not deny), Chaplin began trying to reach out to these intellectuals with decidedly mixed results. This tendency to be an "artist" and a "genius" seeps into Chaplin's work as early as the short Sunnyside (which sees the Tramp cavorting with nymphs in an extended, completely superfluous dream sequence) and stretches throughout his career into his later films, The Great Dictator and M. Verdoux which are deflated ever so slightly in their third act by Chaplin's proselytizing.


Keaton never considered himself an artist and subsequently I find his art ever more surprising. If Chaplin was a ballerina as W.C. Fields famously stated, then surely Keaton is a master magician (entirely fitting for a man whose famous nickname was bestowed by Harry Houdini.) The illusions that Keaton was capable of executing on the most primitive of equipment is nothing short of astounding. His acheivements are comparable to the Beatles recording "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" on a four-track tape machine. On the end of his first day on a film set, Keaton asked Fatty Arbuckle if he could take the camera home for the evening. With Arbuckle's consent Keaton took the machine home and spent the night dismantling and reassembling the camera just to see how it works. This insatiable curiosity permeates Keaton's best work. His inventiveness with the medium of motion pictures is unparalleled to this day. Most of Chaplin's films could have been plays, his camera simply sits there inert, documenting the gags that Chaplin unleashed in a frenzy. They are often hilarious but rarely are they truly cinematic. Not until the end of the silent era did Chaplin begin to truly become a filmmaker, several years after Keaton. From the onset Keaton stretched the form to the breaking point, finding ever ingenious ways to use the medium itself to his clever ends. This was evidenced as early as Keaton's first release as a star, the magnificent short One Week. In his essential book "The Silent Clowns", Walter Kerr sets the scene, much more eloquently than I ever could:

There is a magnificently composed shot at the end of One Week in which Buster and his wife, having moved their house onto the railroad tracks and got stuck there, clasp each other in terror and shut their eyes tight because a roaring locomotive is bearing down on them. At what should be the moment of impact, the train bypasses them entirely. It is on another track. We are as startled as they, the path of the locomotive has seemed so certain. We have been warned that depth exists, somewhere, in the image, because the train has come into view on a sweeping curve, curves suggesting breathing space. Yet the flat composition--house, Buster, wife, advancing train--so compresses our expectation that we can, for the moment, imagine nothing more than the trajectory we see. And we are fooled, thunderingly fooled. The fact that another locomotive, coming from the opposite direction, does plow into Buster's house and turn it into a sea-spray of splinters just as the couple are congratulating themselves on their narrow escape is good additional comedy but not of the essence. The essential comedy has been made of our terrible uncertainty of vision in this elusive form.

Keaton knew that we, in the role of the audience, would only see what he wanted us to see. This being so, his onscreen characters act accordingly. He and his wife hug and kiss in joy because they, like us, cannot see or hear the train that is mere meters from their home. Chaplin never once looked at the potential of cinema in this regard, yet time and again Keaton managed to subvert our expectations in ways that seemed effortless.


This is where I make the argument that if we are comparing these two towering giants we must scrutinize their shorts above all else for this is the only place where the playing field was level. As much as I love him for his agility and storytelling gifts, Chaplin's shorts are on the whole, pretty unremarkable. I have seen about fifteen of Chaplin's shorts, many of them his most well-regarded and frankly, save The Immigrant, Easy Street and One A.M., they're all pretty abysmal. The gags are executed flawlessly but they're simply not great gags. Scenes tend to overstay their welcome on a fairly consistent basis, just waiting to get to the final punch line. There are fine moments for sure but they are few and far between. Compare that with Keaton. Of the 35 shorts he made, in comparison to Chaplin's 70, I count nine that are undeniably fantastic (I have seen thirteen), not just intermittently funny but laugh-out-loud, gag-a-minute gems. These include the aforementioned One Week, where Buster and his wife build a do-it-yourself home; the endlessly clever the Goat where Buster is mistaken for a wanted criminal; and Neighbors, a side-splittingly funny story of star-crossed lovers living in the slums. Even the High Sign, the first short Keaton self-produced but shelved because he didn't think it was good enough, is in my opinion better than every Chaplin short, save the Immigrant.


The Playhouse is a good Keaton short to analyze in-depth because it shares some surface similarity to Chaplin's A Night in the Show. Both shorts take place in music halls where a night of vaudeville entertainment is underway. The two films also see their creators playing multiple roles and contain some of the most adventurous filmmaking in their respective oeuvres.

In A Night in the Show it is nice to see Chaplin branching out and playing two non-Tramp characters, although their mannerisms are practically indistinguishable from his alter ego. In the film he portrays both "The Pest", a drunken playboy out for a night on the town, and "Mr Rowdy", a drunken bum living it up in the balcony. The film is mostly made up of violent back-and-forths between Chaplin's drunks and members of the audience, orchestra and performers. There are some subtle moments that I find worthwhile, Chaplin's rapid blinking when he discovers that the hand that he has been caressing does not belong to the gorgeous Edna Purviance, but to her portly, mustachioed suitor is one example. The ever-so brief interaction between the two Chaplins, when the bum pours his beer over the balcony and onto the Pest, is another fine moment, but ultimately the film suffers from Chaplin ceding too much screen time to his plethora of co-stars.




The Playhouse on the other hand does not suffer from this last fault for the very fact that for the first third of the film all of Buster Keaton's co-stars are played by well, Buster Keaton. He is the conductor, the orchestra, the stage hand, the couple in the gallery, the ahem nine black-faced minstrels onstage, the baby and his grandmother in the audience, everyone. Due to a broken ankle suffered on his previous film, The Playhouse is not Keaton's best example of physical comedy (neither is A Night in the Show for Chaplin) but it is a delight for other reasons. The timing that he manages to pull off when the multiple characters interact onscreen is astounding. Not only in the obvious moments when there are two Keatons performing the same dance but even in the throwaway moments of a husband chiding his wife to applaud. Another fascinating aspect of the film is how well Keaton inhabits the characters he is portraying. He gives them all much more personality than Chaplin affords his two drunks in A Night in the Show.



The final two thirds of the picture are less technical achievements than the much-lauded opening but they still contain some very impressive comedy. It's enjoyable to see the twinning nature of the opening recalled with the two sisters that visit Buster backstage. The addition of mirrors is a perfect tutorial in how to build a gag. So is putting out a fire on a man's face with an ax and then using it to shave off his beard. And oh yeah, did I mention Buster's spot-on impersonation of a monkey? Your honor, I rest my case.

To his unending credit, Charlie Chaplin imbued every frame of his later films with a delicate balance of love and pathos. No one has ever done it better. But it is unfair to slight Keaton for his lack of emotion. His concerns have always been more existential. He is a man adrift in an indifferent universe. His charms may be more slyly cerebral than Chaplin's masterful tugs at our heartstrings but their rewards are just as stunning. Buster Keaton's implacable defiance in the midst of this chaotic world manages to impart some much needed peace in my neurotic mind.

It is most certainly true that I wouldn't trade anything in Keaton's world for the last five minutes of City Lights, but as contradictory as it may seem, the reverse is also true. I have never been as continually thrilled or filled with absolute joy then I am when watching the acrobatic and cinematic collide in Sherlock, Jr. and frankly, I wouldn't trade it for curing all of the blind girls in the world. Luckily, we don't have to. We live in a world large enough for two very different geniuses who approached the same form, took it in their inimitable hands and molded it into something no one had ever seen. I am happy and humbled that I get the opportunity to bask in the glow of their bold, distinctive visions.


Keaton's still funnier.

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