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Silent Kings of Comedy Battle Royale! Chaplin v. Keaton v. Lloyd

There’s a reason why we are hosting the umpteenth internet debate to determine who’s the best comic artist of the silent era.

By Kevin B. Lee November 30, 2011

Part of the Series The Silent Artists

The Silent Kings of Comedy

Last month I unearthed an old college notebook from the one film class I ever took. The first 13 pages of lecture notes were almost exclusively about Buster Keaton. Clearly the professor had a yen for The Great Stoneface. But there was something more telling in the way he introduced Keaton to our class, as reflected in my first page of notes:

Buster Keaton vs. Charlie Chaplin

Chaplin = heavily sentimental, full of pathos

Keaton = more reposed, rigid in the face of adversity, no time wasted from scene to scene

And so it went for 13 pages: the Art of Keaton in all its deadpan kinetic glory. As far as The Little Tramp, arguably the most recognizable icon in movie history, that one line was all my professor had to say. Because this class wasn’t about movies, with its easy sentiments and superficial indulgences. It was about the art of cinema, a distinction my professor was quick to make in the face of so many undergraduates clearly expecting to coast through a gut course watching movies in class. Cinematography, mise en scene, editing: these were the building blocks of film art, all on full display in Keaton’s work, thus making him a supreme cinematic artist, so we were told. It would be years before I even bothered to watch a Chaplin film.

When I did come back to Chaplin, it was something of a mild shock to discover how much there was to his films beyond the sentimental pathos my professor disdained. In fact, one could argue that the pathos was exactly what enabled Chaplin’s art to flourish, in how he crafted each scene around an emotional effect with painstakingly precise staging, graced by an elegance of gesture, arriving at its own perfection. While the timing in his films is inarguably more relaxed than Keaton’s, it’s not “wasted,” but rendered in just the right amount of time for a moment to yield its feeling. Where for Keaton space is a hurtling function of time, for Chaplin time is experienced as a kind of space, like watching a blossoming flower expand its petals in a moment that keeps opening itself to us. (Anyone who’s seen the last scene of City Lights knows what I’m talking about).

I now look back on my film class experience as emblematic of the sentiments that have dominated modern film studies, with its emphasis on distilling a “pure” concept of cinema as the study of motion, exemplified by filmmakers like Keaton at the expense of those like Chaplin. This is but one aspect of a Keaton vs. Chaplin debate that has gone on for decades, a debate that some would say is needless, either because both are equally worthy of our admiration or because one is clearly superior. What I also learned from those Keaton lectures is that you can’t take the valuations of these legendary artists for granted, because there may be another insight that may transform your perspective. That can only be a good thing, because if we do take these artists for granted, they risk stagnating in our collective memory.

So that’s why we are hosting the umpteenth internet debate to determine who’s the best comic artist of the silent era: Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd. I know I haven’t mentioned Lloyd until now, but he’s far from being an afterthought, as the case made on his behalf will prove. The hope is that each argument will offer new eyes to see the work of all three afresh. Happy reading, and may the best argument on behalf of these best men win.

Timeless Obsession: Why Harold Lloyd is More Relevant than Keaton or Chaplin

Super Tramp: The Enduring Legacy of Charlie Chaplin

Why Buster Keaton is the Isaac Newton of Movies

Additionally, Roger Ebert has written assessments of all three artists in his Great Movies column:

Ebert on Keaton Ebert on Lloyd Ebert on Chaplin

Kevin B. Lee is Editor of Keyframe on Fandor. Follow him on Twitter.

* Top image found at The Incredible Suit, where blogger Neil Alcock made his own personal ranking of the three comic kings .

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  • God, this is such a pointless debate. Art is not a competition. Once you get to the level of art of Keaton and Chaplin (and Lloyd…let’s not forget Lloyd), distinctions like “better” “greater” and “best” are all meaningless. It’s all a matter of taste.

  • alsolikelife says:

    Christianne, I acknowledge your point in my intro. And I add that these debates are worth having if they can yield new insights and ways of appreciating all of these films and filmmakers. The real “competition”, if there is one, is in our own ability to value them as much if not more than past generations of movie lovers.

  • Jamie says:

    For me, Keaton’s films are more enjoyable for laugh out loud moments. I don’t tend to laugh out loud as much during Chaplin’s films (although there are some scenes, for example, in “The Circus” that are hilarious). Keaton and Chaplin probably wouldn’t have reached the heights that they did if it wasn’t for Max Linder and Roscoe Arbuckle. Chaplin got the baggy pants and derby hat ideas from Arbuckle – plus he was a star before anyone knew about Chaplin in films. Lloyd started out as a Chaplin imitation (his Lonesome Luke character). Keaton had a much later start than Chaplin, Lloyd, or Arbuckle. All four learned from each other and shared ideas with each other. All four were incredibly strong physically – Keaton supposedly thought Arbuckle was like a tank. Try doing any of their stunts and you’ll see just how physically strong and talented all 4 of these men were. Had Arbuckle not spent Labor Day weekend in San Francisco in 1921, this would be a 4-way debate. A lot of Lloyd’s work is astonishing, especially when you consider that many of these stunts were done by a man who was missing much of one of this hands.

    I wish there were more works by all 4 on Fandor – they are all enjoyable to watch.

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