Growing up as a sickly boy in an unforgiving working-class neighborhood of London’s South Bank during the 1890s (a part of London still so dangerous that the concierge at my hotel recommended I not venture there to pay tribute), young Charlie Chaplin, confined to his bed, only felt like he could take part in life by observing the people who passed in front of his window. On one such occasion, he saw coming out of the pub his uncle owned across the street an aged retainer, knees-bent, feet-splayed, and carrying a crooked little cane. From the memory of this one individual, the most famous character the cinema has ever conjured was born. Chaplin claimed that the rest of his little Tramp’s signature style—his short mustache, crooked bowler hat, baggy pants, and threadbare vest—were assembled on the spur of the moment from costumes lying around Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios when Chaplin was making his third short film, Kid Auto Races at Venice.
The 1914 film is a mockumentary, in which Chaplin’s Tramp—making his first ever screen appearance—hijacks the attention of a camera crew filming kiddy races by always stepping into the foreground of their field of vision. It’s a telling moment. For one, it signifies his interest and ability in having his personality—and physical presence—become the subject of the film. In essence, he wanted to be a movie star. But it also points out what will become a criticism of his entire cinema: that his visual style is predicated entirely on nothing more than pointing the camera at himself. In reality, the idea that Chaplin’s films are “uncinematic” is one of the great lies perpetrated on cinephiles by modern film criticism, apparently a new school of resentment that writes off all emotion as mere “sentiment” and equates visual efficiency with simplemindedness.
Chaplin grew up in a theatrical family. His father and mother were London music hall actors, but his father abandoned them when he was seven years old. With their father gone, Charlie and his brother Sydney were parted from their devoted but mentally unstable mother and sent by the government for a time to one of London’s notorious workhouses. When he came to America in 1912 at the age of 23, he had already made a name for himself in England in his family’s business—that of performing at music halls, where he made his debut at the age of five, after his mother suffered a nervous breakdown. A fan of Max Linder’s short comedies, Chaplin joined up with comedy pioneer Sennett’s Keystone Studios for $150 per week. From the period of 1914 to 1917, Chaplin would make 62 films, which Roger Ebert has declared to be “the most influential in film history.” With these films, Chaplin would become the world’s first movie star, succeeding in getting his audience to recognize him and his performances from film to film—and honing his comic and visual techniques as well. In Tillie’s Punctured Romance, the cinema’s first feature-length comedy, headlined by theater star Marie Dressler, Chaplin not only acted, but again did what he did best: he observed. Specifically, he observed the way Sennett could build comic gags and prolong their duration through editing.
Tired of Sennett’s crude slapstick approach to film comedy, Chaplin abandoned Keystone shortly afterward for Broncho Billy Anderson’s Essanay Film Manufacturing Company in Chicago earning $1,250 a week. At Essanay, he would poke fun of the smash-and-bash vulgarity of Sennett in his meta film His New Job, which portrays a troglodyte director wringing comedy from scenarios clichéd in even 1915. Directing his own films for the first time, he would experiment with fantasy sequences, location photography, and clever inversions of the functions of props—like turning a palm frond into a toothbrush. These short films bear none of the visual fluency of his later features starting with The Kid in 1921, and it’s in this period that Chaplin falls short most significantly in comparison to the other pantheon silent clown, Buster Keaton.
The favorite game of cinephiles is a binary one: Kurosawa vs. Mizoguchi, Wyler vs. Ford, British Hitchcock vs. American Hitchcock, Star Trek vs. Star Wars, and the biggest one of all, Chaplin vs. Keaton. It’s a ludicrous form of discourse. As David Bordwell says, “The forced duality ignored other important figures—Harold Lloyd, most notably—and it asked for an unnatural rectitude of taste. Surely, a sensible soul would say, one can admire both, or all.”
Keaton’s films keep a cool detachment as he juggles whatever the inhospitable universe throws at him: hurricanes, roaring rapids, collapsing buildings, runaway trains, speeding cars without brakes, Civil War battles, legions of policemen, angry island natives. Throughout it all, he keeps his cool, showing little emotion on his great stone face. Just his ability to survive in any of his films was a great existentialist triumph of human will, so it’s easy to see how his films underwent a great critical resurgence during the celebration of willpower that was the ’60s.
Chaplin, by comparison, came to be seen as old-fashioned, theatrical, sentimental, and artificially manipulating our emotions to fall in love with him. Chaplin’s films were stagy and mannered (he was never properly integrated into his environment the way Keaton was). Of course, these new Chaplin haters had forgotten something Chaplin kept dear to him his whole career: “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.” There are countless examples of Chaplin interacting with his mise-en-scène in ways every bit as inventive as Keaton: running over the rooftops in The Kid, or against the wind in The Gold Rush; falling backward into a barrel in The Circus, or into the bowels of a machine in Modern Times.
In fact, the only period of his career when, film for film, Chaplin can’t in any way hold his own with Keaton is that of the short films he made before 1921. Chaplin never once told a pithy black comedy with the poetic three-act efficiency of, say, Keaton’s Cops or The Haunted House. Chaplin’s films of this period are more episodes than narratives, built around two or three gags stretched to fill one or two reels.