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…
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