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 Continue reading IN A WORD, “CHAPLIN”