Charles Chaplin or Buster Keaton, who was greater, is one of those perennial questions—like "Republican or Democrat" "Elvis or the Beatles"—that transcends its original context and ends up saying more about the people doing the debating than about the subject at hand. As with any debate of this type, there is no right or wrong answer, only a matter of taste.
My tastes, which are broad enough to include both performers, ultimately lean toward Chaplin.
At his peak, Chaplin was the most popular movie performer in the world and yet his reputation rests on a relatively small body of work. After beginning his career with a flood of forgettable short features (mostly directed by Mack Sennett), Chaplin worked meticulously and produced few films. Over a span of ten years beginning in 1921, he directed only three shorts (including The Idle Class and Pay Day) and five features, one of which—the drama A Woman Of Paris—included only a cameo on his part.
Keaton was more prolific. "[I]n an extraordinary period from 1920 to 1929," Roger Ebert has written, "[Keaton] worked without interruption on a series of films that make him, arguably, the greatest actor-director in the history of the movies."
The public, however, found Keaton to be an acquired taste and he was always scrounging for funding. Still, he managed to make some of the best silent comedies of all time, including The General, Sherlock Jr., Our Hospitality and The Navigator.
Both wrote, directed and starred in their own productions. Both did most of their own stunts. And both were, at their best, hilarious. Neither truly hit their stride until they formed their own production companies and took full control of their work, United Artists in Chaplin's case, Buster Keaton Productions in the other.
The argument in favor of Keaton is a good one. He made what many, including myself, consider to be the best movie of the Silent Era, The General. In addition, the understated style of his comedy as his characters single-mindedly pursue their desires is a style at once familiar and easily-accessible to modern audiences. Finally, his movies have none of the unabashed sentimentality of Chaplin's films that some, though not me, find cloying and heavy.
In arguing for Chaplin the actor, I am relying on the handful of shorts and the feature-length films, including The Kid, The Gold Rush and The Circus, over which he exercised complete artistic control.
Watching those movies again, and comparing them with Keaton's, I was struck by the range of the emotions and comic situations in Chaplin, from the gentle humor in the domesticity of The Kid to the surreal slapstick of The Gold Rush to the acrobatic grace and athleticism of The Circus.
While I believe you can argue about who made the better movies, Chaplin, as a comedian and an actor, could simply hit a greater variety of notes with seeming ease than Keaton ever dared try.
I remember one terrific laugh in Chaplin's comedy, The Kid, that comes from a matter-of-fact flick of Chaplin's eyes from a foundling baby to an open sewer hole that certainly suggests one solution to the problem of unplanned parenthood.
And yet later in The Kid there's that unforgettable sequence when Chaplin races across the rooftops to rescue this same child, now a six year old boy he has raised as his own, from the remorseless representatives of the local orphanage. The reunion of Chaplin and the boy is one of the most touching scenes in movie history.
I guess that's what separates Chaplin from Keaton for me: both can make me laugh, but only Chaplin can make me cry.
If that makes me, to quote Louis in Casablanca, "a rank sentimentalist," so be it, I'll cop to the charge.
Audiences the world over related to the character Chaplin played in nearly every movie, the Tramp, the little guy living in squalid poverty, oppressed by the soulless machinery of a hostile society—which is pretty much the human condition in a nutshell for millions of people.
These same audiences longed, I suspect, to achieve the in-it-but-not-of-it insouciance with which the Tramp met his daily suffering. Oh, to relish the taste of the boot you've boiled for your Thanksgiving dinner the way the Tramp did—there's Chaplin's appeal reduced to a single scene.
The other key to Chaplin's allure is that more than any other silent performer, Keaton included, Chaplin truly did not need dialogue to convey action, jokes and especially emotion. As Roger Ebert has pointed out, children get Chaplin; it's only after they grow up that they forget how words serve mostly to confuse and distract.
Chaplin continued to make films sporadically during the sound era. Two of those films, City Lights and Modern Times, are masterpieces, and a third, The Great Dictator, is nearly so.
Chaplin was awarded honorary Oscars for his achievements twice, one at the very first Oscar ceremony in 1929, the second in 1972. He won a single competitive Oscar for his scoring of Limelight.
Nothing I've said here settles the debate—the debate can never be settled. Fortunately, I only have to choose between Chaplin and Keaton for purposes of handing out an award that doesn't even exist. My movie collection includes a healthy sampling of each.
You want my advice? Skip the argument, watch Chaplin and Keaton and become a fan of both.
Note: The boy in the photograph with Chaplin is Jackie Coogan, who not only played the title character in Chaplin's classic, The Kid, but later grew up to play Uncle Fester in one of my favorite television shows, The Addams Family.
Keep that in mind the next time you think, "Gee, what a cute kid ..."
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