Any hip, against-the-grain aficionado with an appreciation for the surreal, the avant-garde, and the experimental will tell you flat out that there’s no comparison: it’s Keaton over Chaplin. You simply have to concede Keaton’s superiority because Chaplin was too accepted, too famous, too popular, too sentimental, too rich, too pedestrian in directorial style, too populist, too egotistical, too narcissistic, and nowhere near as prone to risk-taking as Keaton.
That was THE prevailing thought from the 60’s until quite recently and accurate only in theory because, like Beethoven, Chaplin really can’t be overrated, while Keaton certainly is (i.e., The General).
That doesn’t mean the above comparison has no truth and, naturally, it would be preposterous to say that Chaplin did not make some truly terrible films (King of New York and A Day’s Pleasure are people’s exhibit A).
However, Keaton’s experimentalist stature is grossly exaggerated. He was certainly the most innovative of the “A” list silent clowns, but was nowhere near as much so as either the recently re-discovered Charlie Bowers or Harry Langdon, who, as blasphemous as it may sound, really had more memorably etched, modern characterizations (Chaplin did say he only felt threatened by Langdon).
In hindsight, Keaton’s innovation, which surfaced only sporadically, seems suspiciously unintentional, even if his best films are indeed brilliant and highly innovative—The Playhouse and Sherlock Jr.
Years later, when working with Samuel Beckett on Film, Keaton revealed his impatience with experimentation by loudly grumbling.
One walks away from Keaton’s best films feeling impressed. One walks away from Chaplin’s best film unforgettably moved.
There is hardly a more profoundly artistic, emotionally overwhelming ending than that of City Lights . It remains the most memorable ending in screen history. Montgomery Clift declared it the greatest screen acting he had seen (that’s saying quite a bit from an actor of Clift’s caliber, but perhaps he had not seen Falconetti in Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc, which is hardly acting in the gauged sense).
City Lights deserves all the acclaim it has received. It is Chaplin at his most spiritual and at his most expertly balanced (the pathos does not draw attention to itself, as in many of the later films. It is a sublime film in which truth and beauty go equally in hand).
Chaplin also ventured into the surreal, as witnessed in the stylish heaven sequence of The Kid (which threw off many critics of the time). The sets, the incomparable acting of Jackie Coogan (who remains the yardstick of child actors), the scene of the Tramp debating whether or not to drop his newly found orphaned infant into a street grate, and the heart-rending scene of faceless officials tearing the son away from his surrogate father will stay in the viewers’ minds long after the credits roll.
The Gold Rush ventured into surrealism as well, in the famous scene in which the starving Mack Swain imagines the Tramp as a sumptuous chicken dinner (thus, providing much later humor in many a Bugs Bunny cartoons).
There is also the surreal dream sequence of the Tramp frolicking with wood nymphs in First National’s SunnySide. Unfortunately, SunnySide‘s dream sequence is all too brief and the film, like most of Chaplin’s First National films, suffers from fragile construction, due mostly to studio interference and pressure (that studio honestly earned it’s notorious reputation).
By today’s standards, the Tramp is occasionally unlikeable, hardly politically correct, callous, mocking of conventions, selfish, and even cruel. Yet, this eternal vagabond remains a deeply religious figure. The Tramp is quite possibly the most truly religious of screen figures, which also makes him one of the most enduring. Amidst all the misery and suffering, there is the Tramp, a bit like Luke’s Christian gospel, always standing up to the elite, affluent, beautiful ones and doing so, not just with humor, but with profound humor. Chaplin’s Tramp is the most human of all clowns, and that all-identifying humanistic quality is the core of his enduring greatness.
Chaplin nearly stood alone among the silent clowns in refusal to wear blackface (Keaton and Langdon had no such qualms), but his character was not above pushing a hobo down in a frenzied effort to grab a cigar butt off the street, ashing a cigarette into a snoring man’s mouth, or contemplating stealing the church’s collection plate.
In an actual community church setting, the Tramp always seemed the proverbial fish out of water. Naturally, there’s the famous opening in Easy Street (his best film); and in The Pilgrim, the Tramp convict disguised as a priest does a unique pantomime David and Goliath, very much to the delight of a child and to the complete dismay of the startled church elders (one of his greatest strengths was in tackling hypocritical pieties).
Chaplin was lucky in having two remarkable on-screen leading ladies, Edna Purviance and Paulette Goddard. Goddard is Chaplin’s most perfect partner (while Eric Campbell was his most perfect foil). With Goddard (whom he married off-screen) we have a couple, the Gamin and the Tramp, who are as much an ode to the iconic American language of romance as is Sinatra’s “Hello Young Lovers.”
In his silent swansong, Modern Times, Chaplin and Goddard walk together, arm in arm into the expanding Hollywood sunset. It is the last time we will see the Tramp as we have come to know him, and there’s comfort in knowing that this all embracing horizon welcomes this husband and wife. Beyond that sunset all the misery, rejection, heart break, struggling and poverty are forever vanquished for the Tramp in all of us.
*Dedicated to long nights with Chaplin on the couch.