Feud! Chaplin vs. Keaton

With Film Forum about to begin a three-week Chaplin retrospective, two TONY critics draw a line in the sand and take sides.

Joshua Rothkopf: One of the feuds you and I always return to is this comparison between Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton: Who was the greater silent clown? As much as I love Buster, the Little Tramp has the edge as both an icon and a filmmaker.

David Fear: It’s funny. This feud was going on loooong before you and I started butting heads. It’s the film equivalent of Elvis vs. the Beatles!

JR: Exactly. And probably for good reason. They’re very different, no?

DF: Quite. Do you think Chaplin has more power as an icon or as a filmmaker?

JR: Chaplin is an icon of scrappy can-do spirit. Even now, with teens not even watching him, he is recognized. His appeal is more “cute” than Keaton’s. But there are hidden depths. How does Buster work as an icon?

DF: I don’t know if Buster does work as an icon, necessarily. His “Great Stone Face” persona is built on a well-crafted deadpan mojo that doesn’t really scream iconic—certainly not the way the Tramp does. But I feel like Keaton’s sensibility is far more modern than Chaplin’s Victorian sentimentality. Plus, his use of the medium is much more daring.

JR: Chaplin operates as a sentimental figure, for sure, but I feel like that’s essential encoding: He taught audiences how to love stars in a new way. His appeal is also very selfish and egotistical—I think of all those films that seem to focus on his wriggling little butt.

DF: Selfish and egotistical are not descriptions I’d consider praise.

JR: Ha. Really, he can be preening and, if you like, a touch self-aware.

DF: A touch? You’re too kind, Rothkopf.

JR: In that context, I’d completely concede that Keaton is more sedate and mature.

DF: Sedate in terms of reactions, I agree, and yet there’s never a lack of movement or momentum in his films. There’s a sense of can-do-ness to Keaton that’s much more straightforward (and straight-faced); he feels more 20th century. As opposed to the woe-is-me hand-wringing that accompanies Chaplin’s 19th-century melodramatics.

JR: You crystallize it for me. When I watch Keaton, I’m riveted by an everyman dealing coolly with a bad situation. With Chaplin, I feel he’s like some strange, bizarre animal: a magical creature. He is the situation.

DF: And therein lies my problem. Every Chaplin film becomes a claustrophobic tribute to himself. It’s tacky and graceless. Not to say Chaplin can’t be graceful—the globe dance in The Great Dictator comes to mind, as does his gear-slinking in Modern Times. But Keaton’s films are about the situations and stories themselves, even if he is emotionally remote. Let me put it to you this way: Keaton could never have given us the ending of City Lights—as emotionally devastating as it gets. But Chaplin could never have given us that scene in The General when Keaton daydreams on a moving train. It’s sublime.

JR: Fully agreed. With these two figures, we have representatives of two different kind of cinema: celebrity-based (Chaplin) and narrative-based (Keaton). Also, both are directors, and I think Chaplin’s risks in subject matter are greater, especially The Great Dictator (which required his kind of egotism to puncture Hitler). How do you rate Keaton as a director?

DF: Far, far superior. I feel like Chaplin has a knack for putting his camera in the equivalent of the theater stalls and just turning it on, then performing for it. Whereas Keaton understood how to use space, the frame and the malleability of film imagery itself as a source of humor. Not to get all ivory-tower egghead on you, but with Chaplin, cinema is a witness; with Keaton, it’s a collaborator. How do you rate Chaplin as a director, as opposed to a performer?

JR: Keaton had extraordinary gifts as a shaper of visual space, no doubt. But Chaplin is severely underrated as a director. He creates tensions between characters that are strong, especially with his women, like Paulette Goddard. He’s more of an actor’s director, like Woody Allen.

DF: I’ll buy that, certainly. I go to these guys for different reasons. With Chaplin, I look more for pathos (not a bad word, by the way) and grand gestures. With Keaton, I look for grace and a certain intellectual satisfaction. But that’s not to say my man Buster couldn’t be tender or affectionate: I’ll take that scene in The General where he playfully mock-strangles his girlfriend, then kisses her, over most of Chaplin’s heartstring-tugging. It says so much about their relationship in one tiny moment.

JR: I love that instant in The General—it’s so full of feeling. And yet, I feel your argument could be easily reversed. “Grand gestures,” as you call them, are not somehow easier to orchestrate, especially when you’re talking about the devastating conclusions of The Kid or City Lights. Honestly, I don’t think Keaton was capable of mustering such emotions. His movies feel more like whirling contraptions, brilliant but a touch heartless. And Chaplin was a master of smaller satisfactions, too: Remember the dinner-roll dance in The Gold Rush, or his carving up the shoe for dinner. There’s a resignation in those scenes that I’d call Keatonesque, had Chaplin not been a contemporary.

DF: Right, but those are two scenes; you could just as easily find two dozen other scenes that center on Chaplin’s narcissistic emotional neediness, a route that Keaton—thankfully—never felt the need to take. Grand gestures that are designed to do nothing but milk sympathy ad nauseam are pretty easy, actually; just add a kid, a waif and/or a few downtrodden shiverings aimed at the camera. It’s producing a knee-jerk response versus a genuine one. Meanwhile, it’s the rare occasion when Keaton’s less-is-more modus operandi produces anything less than genuine response, muted or otherwise.

JR: We are drifting into territory where we differ. Because you’re never going to convince me that the nuanced, final reaction shot of City Lights—one of the greatest close-ups of cinema history (and cribbed for The Purple Rose of Cairo)—is “knee-jerk.” Milking sympathy ad nauseam is a gross reduction of what Chaplin does. He’s trying to connect with a global audience. Sometimes he’s shameless, granted. But this is an artist, too. Don’t you find Keaton too remote sometimes?

DF: Very, very rarely. Even when Keaton is playing things down or doing gags that seem to value technical expertise over laughs, I always sense a beating heart underneath it all. The house falling down around Keaton in Steamboat Bill, Jr. is a wonder of precision in the name of wowing the audience, but it’s always his response of gentle bewilderment afterward that thrills me. And as I get older, I find I have less tolerance for Chaplin’s dependence on sap. I was willing to forgive a lot for the payoffs in Chaplin’s films, but my patience runs thin for that type of pandering now. What’s your favorite Chaplin moment?

JR: See, people? This is what this feud does to us. Pandering! Sap! The Keaton persona has, over time, become less rich to me as well. It’s a beautiful note, that befuddlement, but it’s Keaton’s only note. And he never played a happy serial killer like Chaplin did in Monsieur Verdoux. I love Chaplin’s roller-skating in the short film “The Rink,” an incredible set piece that turns motion into very nearly a philosophy. Chaplin was never just a technician to me. Your favorite Keaton moment?

DF: Oh, God, where do I start? In The General, there’s that scene atop the moving train as Keaton’s Confederate soldier travels one way and the massive Union army moves the other way behind him. I also love the escalating chase between groom and brides—many, many brides—in Seven Chances. Or the way he frantically rushes down three flights of stairs (with the camera seamlessly tracking him down each flight) to take a phone call from his true love in The Cameraman. I could go on.

JR: I know you could. As a final thought, who do you think is the more timely artist to today’s audiences and tastes?

DF: Good question. I think people respond more to easy emotional stimuli these days, which would make me say Chaplin. But a lot of Chaplin’s work, with the exception of Monsieur Verdoux, has dated badly. Whereas Keaton’s silent features, largely because he uses understatement so beautifully and has such a knack for layering his gags via his moviemaking, have held up surprisingly well. So I’d say Keaton. But I’m biased.

JR: Indeed you are (as am I). I feel like Keaton’s slow burn has plenty of currency these days, especially with someone like Bill Murray doing a modern take on it—and even improving on it. But yes, Chaplin is a cornerstone of comedy, and to reject easy emotional stimuli is to reject a wide swath of popular filmmaking. Chaplin is “the movies,” not art cinema. And he always will be.

DF: Until our next round, that is.

Read our review of The Circus, now at Film Forum.

Read our DVD review of Lost Keaton.

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