City Lights

City Lights Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin

While they were not contemporary rivals, each firmly committed to making their own unique work, throughout the course of cinematic history, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton have been endlessly compared and contrasted over the years and positioned, to some extent, as rivals. In an article in Entertainment Weekly, Ty Burr posited, "What’s undeniable is that Charlie’s sentimental sensibility was rooted in the music hall and vaudeville of the past, while Buster was a poker-faced modernist who pointed to the future. Chaplin’s warm, in other words, while Keaton’s cool, but both can paralyze you with laughter and stun you with sudden, unexplained emotion."

Charlie Chaplin was an Englishman who came up in vaudeville and dance halls, and this background informed his approach to cinema in key ways. Buster Keaton was an American comedian and filmmaker, who also came up through vaudeville into the silent film movement, but who was less interested in mugging in his film work. Where Charlie Chaplin was goofy and smiling, Keaton remained stoic, and the comedy of his slapstick rested in his ability to endure hardship. In a comparison of the two comics for The Guardian, Henry Barnes writes, "For me Keaton was the ultimate slapstick performer. Like Chaplin he understood that he needed the audience's love to get a laugh. Unlike Chaplin he never asked for it."

At the end of the day, both performers were singular and were not necessarily seeking to outdo the other in any way. However, it is perhaps worth investigating their differences in order to understand more about how their respective clownishness reflects the society they sought to entertain. In some ways, each of them represents different modes of masculinity: Chaplin the hammy Mama's boy, seeking female validation and following his appetites with a sentimental glint in his eye, and Keaton, a representation of the resilient and long-suffering paternal figure, facing hardship optimistically and barely ever cracking a smile.