The case for Chaplin

Chaplin and Virginia Cherrill in City Lights (1931).

In the eternal (and falsely dichotomous) “Chaplin vs. Keaton” debate I’ve always been a Chaplin guy, even though lately he seems to have become the less popular choice, and what’s more I tend to like many of the things about his films that other people criticize them for—their sentimentality, and their reliance on plot conventions and devices that feel like vestiges of 19th-century melodrama (orphaned urchins, blind waifs, etc.).  Keaton, with his boats and trains, feels twenty years more modern than Chaplin, even in the 1920s films.  And by the 1930s Chaplin had become willfully, self-consciously old-fashioned, insisting upon making silent comedies nearly a decade into the sound era.  In any case City Lights (1931), for all its hokeyness, seems to me as finely wrought and as technically virtuosic as anything Keaton ever made. 

If Keaton saw the comedy inherent in human beings’ relationship to machines—something Chaplin would himself tackle in Modern Times—Chaplin’s comedy unfolds on a more intimate scale, taking the smallest of things as its objects.  And whenever Chaplin does aim for a bigger set piece, as in the boxing sequence in City Lights, or the bit with the tramp and the millionaire falling into the canal, the film feels tiresome, as if straining under the weight of his ambition.  But in the smaller scenes, as when the blind girl proceeds to unravel the tramp’s undershirt, or when he drunkenly tries to eat a party streamer that he has mistaken for a spaghetti noodle, his genius feels effortless and as light as air.  Chaplin’s films are rooted primarily in character; all of the comedy and the pathos of City Lights arises out of the tramp’s relation either to objects or to other people.  Chaplin was a notorious perfectionist and an exacting technician, and it’s possible to make the case that City Lights’ famous ending scene is as slickly designed in its manipulation of the audience as one of Keaton’s mechanical stunts.  But even if that’s true, the technical precision of Chaplin is always suffused with humanity, and with the comedy that arises out of human behavior.  I’ll take that over Keaton’s planes, trains, and automobiles any day.

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