Sunday, March 07, 2010

Keaton and Chaplin and all

Someone has put a Buster Keaton montage up on You Tube. It's been set to the music of the Can Can. Whoever put it together had a good sense of the rhythm both of the movie clips and the music, and the thing works very well. There are moments from Keaton movies I've never even heard of, and an endless series of falls, spills, tumbles and slides. Was the man made of rubber? Or else he was a medley of broken bones.

A longer clip, from Charlie Chaplin's Limelight, is also on You Tube, and contrasts the two artists to the benefit of neither. Limelight was produced in 1952, by which time Chaplin was 63 (almost as old as I am now) and Keaton only a little younger at 57. Chaplin drags out a not-particularly funny scene, with him as a violinist and Keaton as his accompanist on the piano, to an almost enormous inordinate length. Everything is overdone and repeated, until you want to scream for help. Chaplin had always dragged things out - it was only in his big setpieces that he really became funny. Keaton built his sequences over dozens of scenes, in which he spent his life struggling against the forces of gravity and the cussedness of machines, houses, and all manner of other paraphenalia. The grand climax was a climax of dozens of little moments, all of them hilarious, and all related to the story overall. (Jacques Tati also built over a long stretch, but required his audience to wait with him until the sudden climax of things - which sometimes was over almost before you knew it - before giving us the sudden belly laugh.)

Keaton is much more generous, and his movies remain more watchable as a result. In the Limelight, he plays second fiddle (as it were) to Chaplain's main role; this means he gets to do the same thing several times as the camera cuts back to him, to do the obvious (standing on Chaplin's violin when it's left on the floor) or looking perplexed when the piano reacts against them both. He has one spectacular moment - wiggling around on the piano stool leads to it flinging him off - but Chaplin tops that by falling into the orchestra pit - landing out of sight, whereas Keaton does his fall in full view.

Chaplin can be redeemed, however, by watching a piece of silent movie nonsense in which he, Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, Larry Semon, Fatty Arbuckle and Dizzy Daniels all appear. There's no story to it; just a bunch of inept players causing havoc out on a pretty scruffy golf course. Here Chaplin is only seen in short scenes in which his timing with a bunch of golf balls is impeccable.
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