Keaton: The Man Who Wouldn’t Lie Down
Keaton: The Silent Features Close Up
I think that during the Seventies Buster Keaton replaced Chaplin as the master of movie comedy most admired by Americans seriously interested in cinema. The reasons are aesthetic and historical. College (1927) is generally considered the weakest of the twelve feature-length comedies Keaton made in the Twenties, his creative period.1 But it is superior to The Gold Rush (1925), much the best of the four long comedies Chaplin made in the Twenties. College is superior in photography, casting, plot continuity, and consistency of style, for Keaton’s aim—though he would never have admitted it—was to make a work of art. But Chaplin didn’t bother with such trivia: he had in mind not art but himself.
Keaton’s comedies were all of a piece while The Gold Rush is five or six disparate shorts (one, the long sequence in the cabin, brilliant) Scotch-taped together with barely a stab at a plot line. The whole thing is rigged up, with plentiful close-ups, to show the comic expressiveness of every muscle in the great clown’s face and body. So hack photography, scripts, direction, and the cheapest stock sets satisfied Chaplin, who was thinking not of making a work of art but rather of displaying himself as one. Being a comedian and not a mere pantomimist, he had to widen his angle of vision enough to include resistant human foils to play against, and so his leading ladies, notably the talented and durable Edna Purviance, were on a level with Keaton’s, as were his villains, who were literally “heavies.” But for secondary parts, always carefully chosen by Keaton, he took whatever came cheapest from Central Casting.
Chaplin’s one triumph in the Twenties was A Woman of Paris (1923), which he wrote and directed but in which he did not appear. In view of the date, it was a bold achievement: a quietly sophisticated film that clashed head-on with the style of every director of the period from the commercial Cecil B. DeMille to the great D.W. Griffith, telling the story of a cocotte (Edna Purviance) and her rich “protector” (Adolph Menjou) with subtle understatement. In script, direction, and acting everything is implied rather than melodramatically overstated. Its novel combination of humor, pathos, and realism, always with a light touch, inspired Ernst Lubitsch, newly arrived in Hollywood from Germany, to abandon historical drama for this kind of comedy. His The Marriage Circle appeared the next year and was a facsimile right down to Menjou playing the lead. From then until his death in 1947, Lubitsch specialized in such comedies, developing the form far beyond Chaplin’s model to such heights as Trouble in Paradise (1932) and Cluny Brown (1946). But in the beginning, “the Lubitsch touch” was “the Chaplin touch.”
A Woman of Paris was a success with the critics but not at the box office. It was the first Chaplin film to lose money and for a long time the last. The cash customers then, as now, preferred to slip into something more comfortable, such as the warm, relaxing sentimentality of The Kid, co-starring Jackie Coogan, round-eyed and, in a word, cute.
In their two-reel shorts, Chaplin and Keaton are evenly matched, twenty minutes being Charlie’s natural habitat, long enough to fully display his talents as a clown but not so long as to make any great structural demands. Shoulder Arms, The Rink, Easy Street (his Cops), The Cure, The Pawnshop, The Immigrant—these measure up to the best of Keaton’s shorts. Chaplin was the first in Hollywood to see that the future of screen comedy lay with the sixty-minute feature; he released The Kid in 1920, the year Keaton began to make shorts. (One reason for his perceptiveness may be that he had made all his shorts already, between 1914 and 1919.) But he never understood, or cared, that sixty minutes require a different style and structure from twenty.
In The Parade’s Gone By, his fascinating history of American silent movie-making compiled from interviews with survivors from that era thirty years later, Kevin Brownlow quotes one of Keaton’s cameramen: “After we stopped making wild two-reelers and got into feature-length pictures, our scenario boys had to be story-conscious. We couldn’t tell any far-fetched stories…. An audience wanted to believe every story we told them. Well, that eliminated farce comedy and burlesque. The only time we could do something out of the ordinary had to be in a dream sequence.” (The greatest such sequence, which anticipated the surrealist films of Buñuel, Dali, and Cocteau by ten years, is movie-projectionist Buster’s dream that runs a wild half-hour in the middle of Sherlock Junior.) The cameraman was echoing his boss: “We learned in a hurry that we couldn’t make a feature-length picture the way we had done the two-reelers,” Keaton told an interviewer from Sight and Sound in 1965. “We couldn’t use impossible gags like the kind of things that happen to cartoon characters. We had to eliminate all these things because we had to tell a very logical story that the audience would accept. So story construction became a very strong point with us…. There is nothing worse with us than a misplaced gag. Someone may suggest a good gag or even an excellent one, but if it doesn’t fit the story I’m doing and I try to drag it in, then it looks dragged in on the screen. So it’s much better to save it until some time when it does fit in with what I’m doing.”
“In retrospect,” Mr. Brownlow writes, “Buster Keaton was probably the best comedy director in the business.” Not only did he understand “story construction” but also his features were delightfully free of the sentimentality that blights Chaplin’s. The late James Agee has called Keaton “the only major comedian who has kept sentiment almost entirely out of his work.” The opposite is true of Chaplin. Another reason, besides structure, that Chaplin’s shorts are so much better than his features is their comparative freedom from sentimentality—indeed, they often go too far the other way, becoming heartless.
In his movie encyclopedia, The Filmgoer’s Companion, Leslie Halliwell writes: “Chaplin’s two-reel comedies are held superior by many to his later, more pretentious features.” (The “many” have become “most” since 1967.) I agree, with the partial exception of two silent movies that are by far the best of his long films: City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936). The dates are interesting. A millionaire by the end of the Twenties, Chaplin could loftily disregard sound for seven years; also, for the same reason, he could and did spend more freely on better scripts, photography, actors, and sets. City Lights is his funniest, best acted, and most coherent long film, but he couldn’t resist tacking on an incongruous and atrociously sentimental ending; and Modern Times has the same Scotch-tape nonstructure as all his other long comedies.
History may also have something to do with the present taste for Keaton. Perhaps the World War II horrors have changed our cultural climate. Perhaps in this postwar age of disillusion, one feels more responsive to Keaton’s gentle “coolness”—in McLuhan’s terms—and deadpan bewilderment than to Chaplin’s “hot” certainties, his stance of the wise guy who is one up on the yokels, including God, to Whom, in Monsieur Verdoux (1947), as he struts to the gallows as a mass-murderer, he gives, via the prison chaplain, some suggestions on how He might order His world better. Keaton is the fall-guy, puzzled but not helpless, and always courteous, who wins or loses without hurting anybody else; while Chaplin is the aggressive, know-it-all, take-charge type. In this somber period, when confusion invades us; with which comedian can we identify more easily?
This is the Age of Keaton. Or is it? In 1977, the American Film Institute asked its members to select the fifty best American movies to date. Only five silent films were chosen: Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, Chaplin’s The Gold Rush and City Lights, and Keaton’s The General. On the other hand, in Lewis Jacobs’s The Rise of the American Film: A Critical History, the standard work on our pre-1939 cinema, Chaplin gets a whole chapter (twenty-two pages), while Keaton gets just one sentence: “Buster Keaton’s satires (The General, The Navigator) poked fun at convention and pomposity, Buster being a weakling lost in a world of he-men.” (I wonder if Mr. Jacobs had ever actually seen a Keaton comedy?) This whimsically titled “critical history” is still the standard one, it seems, since a new edition, unchanged at least on Keaton, was printed in 1968. A living fossil.
But before jumping too hard on Mr. J., remember that the 1977 poll did select two Chaplins to one Keaton. Or consider a recent, and far more sophisticated work, Gerald Mast’s The Comic Mind: Comedy and the Movies, which is de facto a standard text since it is the only book on the subject. Published in 1973, it seems at first glance to elevate Keaton to a parity with Chaplin, Section III being headed “Chaplin and Keaton,” but actually Chaplin gets three chapters (sixty-three pages) to Keaton’s one (twenty-one pages), a three to one ratio in Chaplin’s favor, which is about what it had fallen to forty years ago when Keaton was a drunken has-been and the bulk of his work was thought to have been lost forever. Hard to explain, given Mr. Mast’s reputation as a serious movie historian, but there it is—one more mystery enshrouding Keaton’s reputation.
Finally, The Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature for the Seventies lists thirty-two Chaplin to only five Keaton items. The large number of Chaplin articles may be explained by the fact that the two most important books on Chaplin appeared very late, stimulating reviews and articles: his own redundantly titled My Autobiography (1964) and the first serious biography, John McCabe’s scholarly, objective, and well-written Charlie Chaplin (Doubleday, 1978). The jacket blurb is accurate: “At last—the definitive Chaplin biography.” But only five articles in the Seventies on Keaton? Unexpectedly inexplicable—another mystery.
So maybe Chaplin still reigns, and there isn’t any Keaton vogue and those plausible aesthetic and historical arguments are so much moonshine. Possibly, but it can’t be demonstrated by statistics, which are too crude—and tricky—to settle such impalpable questions. One thinks, feels, talks to friends and listens at parties, sniffs the atmosphere in a dozen ways, none of them statistical or even hard-fact “objective.”2
In 1975 Walter Kerr’s The Silent Clowns arrived to offset Mast to some extent. A huge, generously illustrated 373-page work, it is the most extensive (and minutely intensive) treatment of the subject I know, combining close analysis with sophisticated appreciation. Mr. Kerr gives Chaplin and Keaton equal space (twenty-four pages); indeed, he gives Keaton a slight edge with another ten pages on the comedies he made with Fatty Arbuckle.
At present the Keaton vogue is limited to an elite (ghastly word!) that is as small as the general public is large. This is a familiar situation that’s never bothered me because I know it won’t last. Time‘s jocose sneers in its first issue (March 3, 1923) at Ulysses and The Waste Land as “incomprehensible” nonsense were followed presently by two respectful “cover stories” on Joyce and one on Eliot. So, too, the conventional wisdom in my boyhood was that Cézanne and Van Gogh “didn’t know how to draw.”
Seven I would call masterpieces: Our Hospitality (1923), Sherlock Junior (1924), The Navigator (1924), Seven Chances (1925), The General (1926), Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928), and The Cameraman (1928). Of the nineteen two-reel shorts he turned out in 1920-1923, eight are of this quality. One Week (1920) was the first film he made after his amicable parting from Fatty Arbuckle, in whose comedies (second only to Chaplin's in popularity) he had played a strong second fiddle since 1917. It is one of the three high points in his two-reelers, along with Cops and The Boat. In 1920 he also made Neighbors and The Scarecrow; in 1921 The Goat, The Playhouse, The Boat, and The Paleface; and in 1922 Cops.↩
I've found two interesting exceptions, however:
(1) Every ten years, beginning in 1952, the British Film Institute has made an international poll of critics, asking each to list, in order of preference, his/her choice of the ten greatest movies ever made. In 1952, Chaplin's City Lights placed second, The Gold Rush third. (He then disappeared for good.) In 1972, Keaton appeared for the first time, The General placing seventh.
(2) Another sign of the times is that in 1968 Andrew Sarris promoted Keaton to a "Pantheon" director. Perhaps I should explain. In the Spring 1963 Film Culture Sarris published a long (51 pages) catalogue of some 150 American directors, from Griffith on, classifying them in a dozen Procrustean categories from "Pantheon" (Chaplin) and "Second Line" (Keaton) down to—a bit desperately—"Other Directors." It was a heroic, and absurd, feat. In a 1968 paperback revision, Keaton joins Chaplin in the Pantheon—indeed outranks him, for Sarris adds: "Keaton is now generally acknowledged as the superior director and inventor of visual forms." The categories may be absurd, but their creator is perceptive. The year 1968 was quite early to catch on.↩
Seven I would call masterpieces: Our Hospitality (1923), Sherlock Junior (1924), The Navigator (1924), Seven Chances (1925), The General (1926), Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928), and The Cameraman (1928). Of the nineteen two-reel shorts he turned out in 1920-1923, eight are of this quality. One Week (1920) was the first film he made after his amicable parting from Fatty Arbuckle, in whose comedies (second only to Chaplin’s in popularity) he had played a strong second fiddle since 1917. It is one of the three high points in his two-reelers, along with Cops and The Boat. In 1920 he also made Neighbors and The Scarecrow; in 1921 The Goat, The Playhouse, The Boat, and The Paleface; and in 1922 Cops.↩
I’ve found two interesting exceptions, however:
(1) Every ten years, beginning in 1952, the British Film Institute has made an international poll of critics, asking each to list, in order of preference, his/her choice of the ten greatest movies ever made. In 1952, Chaplin’s City Lights placed second, The Gold Rush third. (He then disappeared for good.) In 1972, Keaton appeared for the first time, The General placing seventh.
(2) Another sign of the times is that in 1968 Andrew Sarris promoted Keaton to a “Pantheon” director. Perhaps I should explain. In the Spring 1963 Film Culture Sarris published a long (51 pages) catalogue of some 150 American directors, from Griffith on, classifying them in a dozen Procrustean categories from “Pantheon” (Chaplin) and “Second Line” (Keaton) down to—a bit desperately—”Other Directors.” It was a heroic, and absurd, feat. In a 1968 paperback revision, Keaton joins Chaplin in the Pantheon—indeed outranks him, for Sarris adds: “Keaton is now generally acknowledged as the superior director and inventor of visual forms.” The categories may be absurd, but their creator is perceptive. The year 1968 was quite early to catch on.↩