Ten days ago the following question was posed to Richard Brody, who writes about movies for the New Yorker: “Chaplin or Keaton? Gun to your head GO!” Brody’s one-word answer: “Chaplin.” Not quite a week later, he returned to the question to answer it in more detail. What he wrote was intriguing because he didn’t directly compare the two actors — in fact, he never mentions Buster Keaton once in that second article. Instead, using comparisons to Shakespeare, Dickens and Christ, and even a quote from Nietzsche, for heaven’s sake, Brody argues for Chaplin as the cinema’s man of the century.
D. W. Griffith may have made the cinema represent the world and the inner life, but Chaplin made people think it represented their own inner lives. He invented the personal cinema, the notion that the director filmed not merely his ideas and emotions but also himself, and gave viewers . . . a sense that they were discovering aspects of themselves through what they were seeing on-screen. Chaplin is both the cinema’s Shakespeare and its Hamlet, the one figure who transcended the cinema and made it a world-historical idea, and who, through his persona, opened new dimensions of the imagination. I think of him as something of a nineteenth-century figure, an industrial-age moralist somewhat akin to Charles Dickens — but who, through his own on-screen performances, raises post-Victorian sentiment to a reflexive, self-flaying modernism. The Little Tramp found Chaplin as a beleaguered Everyman, both an insolent anarchist and a Christic lamb. But, as drunken roué, and, later, as Hitler and as Bluebeard, Chaplin was also the monster of ego; as a dethroned king, he embodied the dignified man of old-school virtues whose decency is tested by new technologies and the new morés they entail.
I can’t argue with Brody here. Chaplin was unquestionably a bigger star worldwide than Keaton, and had a longer and more successful career, both creatively and financially. Chaplin started earlier than Keaton, and was able to last longer, still do sporadic but significant work into the 1950s. And in the 1960s when Keaton, near the end of his life, was forced to do television commercials and accept bit parts in films, Chaplin was essentially retired and living happily in Switzerland with his family. Beyond that, the films of Chaplin stretch out over a much wider range of subjects and themes than Keaton’s. Chaplin is broader, and larger, and more ambitious. His greatest films — City Lights, The Kid, The Gold Rush — were great comedies, but also something more. They were tragedies, and satires, and love stories. Chaplin was a pretentious auteur, no doubt — I’ve called him that myself before — but he consciously set out to make each of his films a great work of art. There’s nothing wrong with that, especially when you happen to be a genius.
But let’s do what Brody didn’t in his article; let’s talk about Keaton. His career, though cut short by personal problems and the loss of artistic independence at the end of the silent era, has just as many bona fide masterpieces as Chaplin’s. Keaton’s résumé as an actor and director includes such titles as The General, Our Hospitality, Steamboat Bill Jr., The Navigator, and my favorite film of all time, Sherlock Jr. And Keaton’s best two-reelers — The Boat, The Scarecrow, One Week, just to cite a few examples — are at least the equals of Chaplin’s. Was Keaton’s impact on cinema and on the world at large as significant as Chaplin’s? Probably not. But fuck that — look at the work. The work speaks for itself. Keaton was a technically superb director, a master at staging gags and framing scenes for maximum effect with a minimum of directorial contrivance. He was one of the most confident and subtle actors ever seen on a screen. He never thought of himself as Chaplin’s equal, at least not publicly. Keaton only wanted to make people laugh. He wasn’t concerned with making great art, and yet that’s what he wound up making more than a few times. He once famously asked, “How can a man in slap shoes and a flat hat be considered a genius?” His modesty doesn’t change the fact that a genius is precisely what he was.
We come at the question from different directions. Brady chooses Chaplin for the breadth and scope of his work, and I choose Keaton for the lean proficiency of his. Take the gun from my head, and I’ll go on all day about how much I love and admire both men. Neither the accomplishments of Keaton nor Chaplin have yet been exceeded, if you ask me. They are the two greatest geniuses in the history of the movies, and I’m just grateful that, as a commenter on Brody’s initial post on the subject said, we don’t actually have to choose.
But, just for shits and giggles, what if you did have to choose? I put the same question to you all: Chaplin or Keaton? And — if you feel like writing more than one word answers — why?