There is a fierce and constant debate amongst cinephiles as to who was the greater comedic silent film artist: Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton. Those on the Chaplin side may cite Gold Rush, Variety Lights, or Modern Times as his greatest achievement. And Similarly on the Keaton end of the spectrum there are those who say that Young Sherlock, Steamboat Bill Jr., and most definitely The General are just as good, if not better than anything Chaplin ever did. While I do not wish to make light those who take such matters seriously, I would say that the debate at hand is concerning apples and oranges. As far as who is the funnier, that is up to the viewer to decide on their own. But when the subject comes to who is the greater artist, there is without exception one true champion here -- Charlie Chaplin.
I know that this must all sound rather confusing, as I am giving a very positive review to one of Keaton directorial efforts (sharing the credit with Donald Crisp). The point that I wish to make, however is one which Mr. Keaton would have most likely made himself, having been granted the opportunity during his lifetime. He was never out there trying to make works of art (although one might say that he did achieve something of the sort), he was just trying to make good, entertaining pictures which people would like to see. And in that respect, he was in every way Chaplin's equal.
In the 1924 feature, The Navigator, we are once again introduced to the Keaton persona on screen. Shy and somewhat reclusive. Not lacking in intelligence, but somewhat aloof from modern society, therefore incredibly socially inept. He plays a wealthy, pampered young heir to his family fortune who discovers one day that he is lonely and wishes to wed. He makes this rather bold and straightforward statement to his butler as if he was expecting a young lady to be brought to him on a silver platter. This, however, is not due to some impertinent air about him, but due, rather, to the hermetically sealed life he has lived thus far. We can deduce from his blunt actions that, although having known other girls before, he has most likely never interacted with them on anything deeper than a mildly social level. This is once again made clear as he makes arrangements for his marriage ceremony which, according to Keaton, he would like to have within the day, with the following days dedicated to the Hawaiian honeymoon. "But first," the title card reads, "I must propose to the girl."
There is another short and comical scene which takes place directly after his intentions are made clear to his butler (who, like a good servant, does what he is asked without any hesitation). Keaton walks out the doors of his mansion (one of the very few times in his life he's preformed such a feat, I would suspect) and precedes to his chauffeured car which drives him in a large U-turn across the street, where he promptly exits the car and walks up to the door of another large house. Again, within this short moment within the film, we are privy to these small character moments which helps us to develop a further understanding of where this person is coming from. It would be easy to assume the he is simply spoiled from a life of luxury. However, his simplistic nature and harmless demeanor negates the very thought of any malignancy in this adolescent behavior. This is once again reinforced by his proposal of marriage to the lovely, young Kathryn McGuire, who bluntly turns him down. With the innocence of his hopes crushed under the weight of this rejection, he lowers his head and marches back, defeated to the waiting car and driver, to which he says, "I feel like taking a long walk." This long walk consists of the ten or twelve steps it takes to move him from one side of the street to the next, back to his home.
Keaton was known for his incredibly muted expressions, having since been given the nickname, "the great stone-face." This is not to say that he does not emote. In fact, he does just as wonderful a job expressing himself and getting laughs through these expressions as Chaplin with his over-expression, you might say. To simply look at Keaton's mug can produce uproarious laughter from an audience. In one scene in the film, Keaton and McGuire are stuck on a large steam engine which had been set adrift into the ocean. While they are attempting to sleep the night away on bunks in separate rooms, McGuire is kept awake by the ominous gaze of a portrait of a man (possibly the captain), set against a black background. Unable to fall asleep because of it, she goes topside and tosses the picture overboard where it gets caught on the exterior of the ship and swings in front of an open window -- Keaton's window. We CUT TO Keaton's room where he is having just as much trouble sleeping as his female companion. Suddenly, that ominous face appears in Keaton's window, swings back and forth, in and out of the frame of the porthole, as some kind of specter of the sea. Keaton sees it. Instead of an overblown expression with his mouth agape and his hair being pulled out by the roots, his eyes simply flare. Nothing else on his face ever changes. He looks again to make sure he was correct in seeing what he thought he saw. He was correct. He hides under the blankets like a little child, but is soon running like a chicken with its head cut off through the corridors of the ship, covered by the white bed sheet, scaring McGuire into thinking she's seen a ghost as well.
One might argue that all of Keaton's movies are the same: a shy young man tries to win over the woman of his dreams to no immediate avail. He than must prove himself and his capabilities to show that he is indeed a good fit for her; or so that her father will approve, or something to that degree. And to that I say, so what. Keaton's desire is not to enlighten our minds with his films. He simply wants to entertain, and he will do almost anything to make sure that happens, even at his own physical risk. Let's see Chaplin stand in front of a falling building facade only to escape eminent death by being strategically placed in the open hollow of a window frame. I don't think so.