Monday, November 16, 2009
Why Charlie Chaplin Is Better Than Buster Keaton
A brief break from my cold-inspired marathon of Ken Burns's Jazz documentary on the instant netflix to throw down a gauntlet in response to this week's poll question. Mike voted for Keaton, and quite obviously he is wrong. Chaplin is better for several reasons, which conveniently fall into two general categories:
Chaplin did more work than Keaton, and he did it for a significantly longer period of time. Chaplin directed 75 films (including shorts) to Keaton's 47. Of those, Chaplin also wrote 62 (Keaton 39), edited 56 (Keaton 8), produced 36 (keaton 14), and scored 13 (Keaton 0). Every Charlie Chaplin film was quite literally a film by Charlie Chaplin. He was the most auteurish director of all-time. Chaplin got his first directing credit the same year he began acting in films, 1914, and made his last film in 1967: a 53 year career that's as long as any great director in film history (it's even longer than John Ford's; Martin Scorsese has another 11 years before he matches Chaplin's longevity). Keaton's last film as a director, however, was 1929's Spite Marriage (co-directed actually, like many of Keaton's features), a mere 12 years after his first directorial effort. Keaton, of course, continued to act, but his stardom died with the advent of the talking picture (imdb credits him with a surprising number of TV appearances in the 50s). His greatest post-stardom role, in fact, comes in [i]Limelight[/i], written, directed by and starring Charles Chaplin. In his spare time, of course, Chaplin also managed to co-found a studio (United Artists), get married four times and get himself exiled from the US under suspicion of communism.
By my count Chaplin had eight great features: The Kid, The Gold Rush, The Circus, City Lights, Modern Times, The Great Dictator, M. Verdoux, and Limelight. Keaton had six: The Three Ages, Our Hospitality, Sherlock Jr, Seven Chances, The General and Steamboat Bill, Jr.
Throwing them all together, I'd rank them thusly:
1. City Lights
2. Steamboat Bill, Jr
3. Sherlock Jr
4. The General
5. The Gold Rush
6. Modern Times
8. M. Verdoux
9. Our Hospitality
10. The Kid
11. The Circus
12. Seven Chances
13. The Great Dictator
14. The Three Ages
Keaton's got three of the Top 5, but Chaplin pulls ahead with six of the Top 10.
Chaplin's bad rap in comparison to Keaton tends to come down to the issue of sentimentality. We live in an ironic age, and Chaplin is wholly incapable of not being sincere: he always means everything he says and desperately wants you to see things the way he does. Keaton's persona is that of The Great Stone Face, impervious to the anarchy that surrounds him, he is the calm, oblivious center (even houses fall around him). Keaton has no point of view. Chaplin, however, was The Little Tramp, a persona that begs for identification and sympathy from the audience. He's the underdog, the happy-go-lucky bum, the loser struggling to hold onto his dignity. Keaton wants to make you laugh: either at his elegant slapstick or the ingenuity of his visual tricks. For Chaplin, making you laugh is too easy. The mechanics of slapstick, the physicality of the style came so effortlessly to Chaplin that I suspect it bored him. It was easy for Keaton too, but Keaton's response to that was to come up with ever more elaborate stunts and set designs and camera tricks. Chaplin's was to create ever more complex and moving stories within which to situate his comedy (with 1921's The Kid, he essentially invented the comedy-drama). Both are brilliant, but Chaplin aspires to do more.
True, there's nothing as breathtaking in Chaplin as the hurricane in Steamboat Bill, Jr, or as ingenious as the movie theatre sequence in Sherlock Jr, but neither are there images in Keaton's work as iconic as the Tramp trapped in the machine in Modern Times, or his Hitler stand-in bouncing the globe as a balloon in The Great Dictator, or as elegant as the dance of the rolls in The Gold Rush or as heartbreaking as the close-ups of Jackie Coogan crying in The Kid.
This is a big reason why Chaplin was able to transition into sound: his filmmaking wasn't as dependent on the genre of silent slapstick as Keaton's was. Chaplin was interested in more than just film for its own sake, so when film styles changed, he was able to change along with them. Fitfully at first, of course, as he continued making dialogue-less films well into the sound era. But his late sound films, M. Verdoux, Limelight, A King In New York are wonderful, and as funny as any of the other comedies being made in the late 1940s and 50s.
I love Buster Keaton, and if you'd asked me this question ten or even five years ago, I would have said Keaton was the best without a doubt. Maybe I'm just going soft in my old age, but at this point, I wouldn't trade any of Keaton's brilliant jokes for the crushingly beautiful last five minutes of City Lights.
Be sure to check out Mike's response, Why Buster Keaton is Better than Charlie Chaplin.