30 November 2007
On this day in 1913, Chaplin made his first movie – heck that was before even Mickey Rooney (and Mickey’s still working, but then he is by common consent an emanation of Satan, so unlikely ever to die). Chaplin, of course, went on to become the most famous man in the world – perhaps the first truly world-famous man – but in recent decades his stock has fallen sharply, while Keaton’s has risen spectacularly. Apart from my dear good friend Cheever, I don’t think I know anyone who prefers Chaplin to Keaton – maybe there are hordes of you out there in the blogosphere? Keaton’s emotional blankness seems somehow modern, while Chaplin’s brilliantly executed slapstick lurches too often into cloying sentimentality for today’s taste. Neither man, I suspect, actually raises many genuine laughs any more, but Keaton is mesmerically watchable and the kind of genius we can still connect with. Chaplin, I fear, isn’t.
And while I’m on the subject of silent movies, isn’t it a shame that what has come down to us is, overwhelmingly, comedy – precisely the genre that has dated most badly? Whenever I’ve seen one of those refurbished, re-scored ‘lost’ masterpieces that crop up occasionally (King Vidor’s The Crowd, Stroheim’s The Wedding March?), I’ ve been stunned by the emotional power they still pack. We have, I suspect, a strangely skewed idea of silent cinema.