Ideas for Chaplin vs. Keaton Class

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HitchcockLang
Joined: Tue May 28, 2013 1:43 pm

Ideas for Chaplin vs. Keaton Class

#1 Post by HitchcockLang » Thu Apr 16, 2015 8:58 am

I posted this over at Nitrateville but thought your quite different opinions would also be of interest:

I am teaching a semester-long symposium on Charlie Chaplin vs. Buster Keaton. Disclaimer: Obviously, both men were superb filmmakers and some of you may deem that pitting them against each other diminishes their independent relevance, but please understand, this was an angle designed to be interesting and marketable to students and to present an educational question to guide our learning throughout the course.

I will be focusing on the silent shorts (primarily from Chaplin's Mutual library and Keaton's time with Schenk, but certainly other periods such as Keystone, Essanay, Educational, and even features are not necessarily totally off-limits). I would like to create some logical pairs of shorts so that each week, my students can closely study one Chaplin and one Keaton. I want the films to pair nicely in terms of technique, mise en scene, content, themes, stunts, etc. (Ex. The Floorwalker may pair with The Haunted House in their extended use of stair/escalator gags; Easy Street and Cops for their contemporary portrayal of police, etc.). It's not necessarily a question of "who wore it better" but I am merely looking for intriguing comparisons between individual films to spark student discussion and discovery alongside the obvious general comparisons between Chaplin and Keaton as artists.

I will be spending the summer months preparing this class but I thought I would reach out to you lovers of silent film to perhaps suggest some possible topics for the class. Do you have any suggestions for a Chaplin and a Keaton short that would pair nicely and why? Do you have any general suggestions? Can you recommend any books or articles that may illuminate certain topics for the students (these are undergraduate honors students, who I suspect will have very little experience with silent film--much less silent comedy). Thank you in advance for any great ideas!

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Sloper
Joined: Tue May 29, 2007 10:06 pm

Re: Ideas for Chaplin vs. Keaton Class

#2 Post by Sloper » Sat Apr 25, 2015 5:30 am

You probably know this already, but the 1984 Brownlow/Gill documentary, Unknown Chaplin is superb, and the first episode (if I remember rightly) features some brilliant use of out-takes from the short films to illustrate how Chaplin painstakingly developed certain gags through the long rehearsal/filming process. It's scored by Carl Davis and narrated by James Mason, so it's just a treat on every level, and there should be some bits that are quite easy to excerpt and show to students. (Their documentary on Keaton, A Hard Act to Follow, is also great, but I recommend the Chaplin one for the unique insight it gives into his working methods.)

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MichaelB
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Re: Ideas for Chaplin vs. Keaton Class

#3 Post by MichaelB » Sat Apr 25, 2015 5:37 am

I think one crucial point that cannot be overstressed enough in any "Chaplin versus Keaton" debate is that Chaplin started making undoubted masterpieces a fair bit earlier than Keaton, and had less in the way of specifically cinematic influences to draw upon (although of course both Chaplin and Keaton had an extensive stage background).

You talk about comparing the Mutual and Schenck shorts, and that's a case in point - the Schenck shorts were made many years later, taking Chaplin's innovations on board, and Keaton himself was always unstinting in his praise of Chaplin. I don't for one second imagine that you'll do this, but I've seen people comparing 1916 Chaplin shorts with 1922 Keaton ones and concluding that the latter are better simply because they're more technically accomplished - but of course they are!

HitchcockLang
Joined: Tue May 28, 2013 1:43 pm

Re: Ideas for Chaplin vs. Keaton Class

#4 Post by HitchcockLang » Mon Apr 27, 2015 8:00 am

Certainly, I agree. The context will be essential. I suppose it would be more appropriate to pit Chaplin's First National films against Keaton's work for Schenk but there are just so few First National films, they run a little long for my purposes and I have more access to the Mutual films.

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