Friday, November 30, 2007

Chaplin Or Keaton?

On this day in 1913, Chaplin made his first movie - heck that was before even Mickey Rooney (and Mickey's still working, but then he is by common consent an emanation of Satan, so unlikely ever to die). Chaplin, of course, went on to become the most famous man in the world - perhaps the first truly world-famous man - but in recent decades his stock has fallen sharply, while Keaton's has risen spectacularly. Apart from my dear good friend Cheever, I don't think I know anyone who prefers Chaplin to Keaton - maybe there are hordes of you out there in the blogosphere? Keaton's emotional blankness seems somehow modern, while Chaplin's brilliantly executed slapstick lurches too often into cloying sentimentality for today's taste. Neither man, I suspect, actually raises many genuine laughs any more, but Keaton is mesmerically watchable and the kind of genius we can still connect with. Chaplin, I fear, isn't.
And while I'm on the subject of silent movies, isn't it a shame that what has come down to us is, overwhelmingly, comedy - precisely the genre that has dated most badly? Whenever I've seen one of those refurbished, re-scored 'lost' masterpieces that crop up occasionally (King Vidor's The Crowd, Stroheim's The Wedding March?), I' ve been stunned by the emotional power they still pack. We have, I suspect, a strangely skewed idea of silent cinema.


  1. Chaplin or Keaton is a perennial question and, ultimately, doesn't have an answer. You're right, however, that modern audiences will be drawn towards Keaton because he's somehow more expressionless, perhaps even cruel. Yet I don't know if he made greater films than Chaplin.

    I always used to answer Keaton but my attitude has changed after I recently watched dozens of Chaplin's movies. They might not fit with modern tastes but I do think they are possibly greater art. The laughs aren't always laughs. They are more like enjoyable visual conceits whereas Keaton brings laughter from the belly.

    Also, despite the popular opinion, Chaplin did make great sound movies. 'Monsieur Verdoux' is a gem of a black comedy. Then again, there's a really late Keaton film, from 1965, called 'The Railrodder', which is just one of my favourite films.

    Can't I just say: both?

  2. Back when I was a teenager there was a mini Chaplin revival in the States and many of Chaplin's films were shown in theaters. I thought his work was genius but in a very sad way. The little tramp might have been funny but at his best, the character made us reflect on the ultimate sadness of life. In the cynical post-Vietnam years, his message seemed to reflect the world, at least to me.

  3. Chaplin or Keaton? Keaton has the edge but maybe I prefer Harold Lloyd.

    On the subject of non-comic silent movies, one of the best I've seen is Louis Feuillade's "Fantomas" series, chronicling the adventures of the notorious supervillain who fascinated the Surrealists. Amazingly watchable for a film from 1913. Most silent films, whatever their merits, don't have very gripping plots, but I think "Fantomas" is an exception - I really wanted to know what happened next. It's also very, very atmospheric - a lot of it was filmed on location in the working-class districts of Paris (you wonder whether any of the men you see walking the streets were to die shortly after in World War One). There's a beautifully restored version available on Artificial Eye DVD, which is well worth a look. Feuillade's series "Les Vampires" (about a secret criminal organisation bearing a strong resemblance to James Bond's SPECTRE) is rumoured to be even better, but it's not out on DVD in the UK yet.

  4. Look I disagree. I saw Modern Times in a revivalist cinema a month or two ago and I could not stop laughing, neither could the rest of the audience.

    What you say about the emotional power silent films still pack is still true today. I am glad someone else has noticed.