Buster Keaton the Inventor and Charlie Chaplin the Conjurer

The films of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin share a fraternal vitality and invention.

Chaplin or Keaton? This question, common among film enthusiasts, refers less often to cinematic values than personal preference: Not, Who is better, but who do you like better. I’ll state right now that I lean toward Keaton, simply because the mope in me responds more to his dourness, though this in no way detracts from my complete astonishment at the cinematic feats of Charles Chaplin.

Their differences have been compared fruitfully to those between dancers Fred Astaire (Chaplin) and Gene Kelly (Keaton). Astaire is all about the sophisticated line of the performance, his movements epitomizing the phrase “floating on air”. Astaire always retains a sense of dignity, even when dancing on the walls.

Similarly, Chaplin, most especially as the Little Tramp, maintains a dignified manner, whether shuffling along in his dirty rags or kicking a cop in the rear. The eternally poised bum, wandering around in a wistful gloom, Chaplin often interacts with both men and women through over-elegant, slightly prissy antics full of subtle facility. Though he can be funny when still, movement is Chaplin’s primary weapon. Even taking off a hat becomes a deft production.

Compared to Astaire, Gene Kelly is more compact and athletic. He is just as graceful, but there is more muscle in his movements, a bearing down. He’s an intent dancer, exacting, like an athlete gauging the mechanics of his next physical feat.

DVD: Buster Keaton Short Films Collection 1920-1923

Director: Buster Keaton, Eddie Cline

Cast: Buster Keaton, Joe Roberts

Release Date: 2011-07-12

Distributor: Kino

Image:'s a similar acrobatic figuring in Keaton’s choreography of gags. Behind those wide, unyielding Cleopatra-like eyes, absurd arithmetic tabulates in a split second: chased by scores of cops, he sees the opportunity of an oncoming car and simply holds out his hand to seize it. How does he refrain from expressing at that point, knowing what he is about to attempt?

Chaplin, too, makes snap decisions, adapting to predicaments in ridiculous ways, but because his face is more animate we sometimes see it coming, however surprising and satisfying the action. But Buster never lets on. Usually, an expression in the eyes, no matter how slight, gives at least a hint of what’s coming. But with Buster, we never know.

Although a more apparent comparison might be made between their silent shorts, these two very fine releases, The Great Dictator and Buster Keaton: The Short Films Collection 1920-1923 , provide interesting reflections on their respective careers.

Chaplin’s career may have been troubled, what with wives and countries turning against him, but from a strictly show business perspective it wasn’t quite as sad as Keaton’s. Chaplin’s silent films had a strong implication of sound, as in the touching dialogues between the blind girl and the Tramp in City Lights (1931), and thus he was able to transition into sound more easily, though Modern Times (1936), and all his subsequent sound films, contain many if not silent scenes than wordless ones.

Perhaps Keaton had more difficulty making the leap into sound because his humor relied so heavily on his lack of expression, and thus expressing. Despite the artistic and commercial success of his silent features -- e.g., Sherlock Jr. (1924), The General (1926) -- Keaton was dependent on, indeed had an abiding reverence for, the visual gag, a comic creation that works best in the short form and for which sound is superfluous. Think how terrible it would be to hear the sufferings of the people trapped in the whirling house in “One Week”. When Keaton did talk, he was reduced to painful indignities, like his second-banana roles with that enemy of subtlety, Jimmy Durante.

Buster Keaton: The Short Films Collection 1920-1923 contains all 19 of Keaton’s solo shorts, from “The High Sign” to “The Love Nest”. Keaton learned well from his mentor, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, down to stealing some of his gags, yet even if Arbuckle hadn't lost his career to trumped-up rape charges, it's clear that Keaton would’ve outshone him, anyway.

Appropriately, Keaton enters his first solo film, “The High Sign”, back-end-first. This entrance follows an equally appropriate title card that could serve as his career summation: “Our Hero came from Nowhere, he wasn’t going Anywhere and got kicked off Somewhere.” Existentialism, meet Vaudeville.

Some of Keaton’s funniest acting is in his post-gag reactions, small, animated non-expressions that almost pass unnoticed. In “The High Sign”, after a shooting gallery attendant pops up from behind a counter, tumbling him, Buster does a funny arch over the counter to see where the man came from; or, in “Cops”, finding himself in a policemen’s parade, he thinks the people are applauding him, doffs his hat in confusion, then instantly assumes an air of deserving civic importance through the simple gesture of putting his fist on his hip. The explanations sound pedestrian, but the visual moments are perfection.

Such moments are also extensions of gags, or master classes in How To Milk A Gag, but Just Enough. Keaton is a professor of such things, pursuing a visual joke through permutations that, however contrived and multi-structured, end up feeling completely organic: a newspaper unfolds until it’s the size of a blanket; the stubborn houses of “One Week” or “The Electric House” work against their owners.

Keaton is an on-the-spot inventor of primitive machines -- contraptions, more accurately -- and also replacement objects verging on a kind of rudimentary psychology, but more utilitarian: a banana gun, a cigar nail, a floating anchor…

In other words, Keaton’s transformation of objects is always in the realm of utility, but a startling, alternate utility of illogical extremes which, only in Buster’s universe, makes perfect logistical sense. In the exceedingly inventive “The Scarecrow”, a kitchen table is hoisted onto the wall and flipped over to become a sentimental wall plaque, or a white picket fence splits apart for a completely unexpected but decidedly sensible exit.

Often Buster becomes a contraption himself, a near-inanimate prop, as in the manhandling of the brothers in “My Wife’s Relations” or when he assumes a scarecrow position (in the “The Scarecrow”) without a wooden frame to hang on. Sometimes this man-as-thing takes on darker tones. In “The Boat”, Buster and his family endure a brutal beating from the elements that, if it wasn’t for the tack piano accompaniment and Buster’s superhuman malleability, would just be plain sadistic. As for “The Frozen North”, it's simply a ruthless, murderous melodrama disguised as a comic dream.

Keaton relies often on this dream device, which would seem an easy way out if it were not so linked with the comedian’s foundation in realism. Though he tricks big Joe Roberts (his Arbuckle-like foil) and whole police forces, he rarely fools the viewers, at least not without quickly letting them in on it. In the beginning of “The Balloonatic”, it's unclear if Buster is in a haunted house or a fantasy of Hell, before he is ejected swiftly onto the street, and we see that he was merely in an amusement park ride called “House of Trouble”.

Perhaps this is why “The Blacksmith” seems strangely anomalous. Not only is Buster not his usual responsible self -- hired to fix a rich man’s car, he heedlessly destroys it instead -- the film is filled with cinematic trick shots (slow, fast, stop-motion, etc.) rather than pure gags, something Keaton himself draws attention to in the film’s toy train crash finale.

The DVD extras are numerous but spotty. A few of the films have duplicate “enhanced prints”, but the originals are more satisfying, as something about the crackling gaps suits the material. The inclusion of some “redundant footage” feels just that.

There are numerous visual essays, which, though not all critically in-depth, provide nice biographical and incidental information. Finally, there is a sampling of films by other comedians, such as Stan Laurel, with gags inspired by (read: stolen from) Buster. But then, Keaton himself stole from Arbuckle, not least what became his most iconic gag, the house front falling on him, previewed here in “One Week” before modified and perfected in Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928). Comedy, like all art, builds on what comes before.

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