Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton are the two most prominent figures of early movie comedies and they are often mentioned together as rivals for the “best silent comedian” post. Their relationship is an often-discussed topic and there are several theories floating around. Did they really feel threatened by each other? Or were they friends in reality as some others claim? There’s only one way to discover what is probably the closest to truth. Let’s take a look at this extraordinary relationship with the eyes of those who knew them.
The audience thinks that we think in different channels. We automatically think in the same channel, but my way of doing it and Chaplin’s way are two different ways. (…) I’ve always been friendly with Chaplin socially. (…) We spoke the same language. I’ve changed gags with Chaplin – given him gags that didn’t fit me.”
Keaton remembered Chaplin fondly in his autobiography, even if it was written in a time when that wasn’t really the thing to do. He went on to describe Chaplin as the best comedian of all times until late in his life. However, Chaplin didn’t care to waste one single word on him in his autobiography.
I remember once, he was then very old, and I came with a boyfriend of mine, very interested in cinema. Not so interested in Chaplin. He preferred Buster Keaton, which was not the thing to do. We arrived, and he spoke with my father a bit about silent films. And then he went on to talk about Buster Keaton, and my father just got smaller and smaller and he shrunk, and he was so hurt. It was like someone had stabbed him. And he just became very, very quiet. He didn’t say a word during dinner. And after dinner he was thinking and he was looking into the fire, and suddenly he peeped in a little voice. He looked at my friend in the eye and he said: “But I was an artist.” And no one knew what he was talking about. And then he said: “You know, I gave him work.”
A story told by Chaplin’s daughter, Geraldine in the wonderful documentary, Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin.
Some of Keaton’s gags may even have been a little too incandescent for Chaplin because, laugh as he did at the rushes in the screening room, Chaplin didn’t see fit to allow them all into the final version of the film.
Limelight leading lady, Claire Bloom, implying that Chaplin didn’t leave all of Keaton’s best scenes in the movie. Later it became a popular urban legend how Chaplin cut out all of the scenes Buster shined in and left all of his best moments in the movie. This theory is often supported by the footage above that Buster Keaton recorded with Martha Raye (she appeared with Chaplin in Monsieur Verdoux) for television a couple of years later.
There have been so many stories about Chaplin being jealous and cutting Keaton out of the picture. I’ve heard people on television stating that, “Oh, there was such marvellous stuff, but he cut it all out,” “Buster Keaton was funnier,” and all that business, which is a big, big lie. I just want to go on the record that it is not true. I was with him during the filming of it. He gave Buster Keaton such liberties to think of any gags. He wanted the best possible picture. (…) He did the best of Keaton and he gave him a lot by using the sheets of music falling down as counterpoint. Well, that was all done in one take. By his cutting, he gave Keaton an awful lot that wasn’t there just by repeating the same shot every time, and you scream with laughter!
Jerry Epstein, assistant director for the movie, one of the closest friends of Chaplin in his late life, was harsh at debunking the malicious gossips against Chaplin.
Theirs was a friendly rivalry to see who would get the biggest piece of the pie. Buster would go very, very long in his takes. Chaplin would say: “Buster it’s too much – I think – don’t you?”
Eugène Lourié, Ukrainian-born French designer and director, who was one of Chaplin’s right-hand men during the production of Limelight, about the way Chaplin and Keaton worked together.
When Chaplin was doing things with Keaton he was very intense. His whole personality changed from what it had been with me earlier in the day. I was amazed. That was the first inkling I had of what he was about.
Melissa Hayden was a Canadian ballerina, appearing as the dance double for Claire Bloom in Limelight.
LIFE Magazine, March 1952
The scene with Buster Keaton, himself a star of the silent comedies, began with only the meager idea of a nearsighted pianist and an acrobatic violinist. The two, who had never appeared together before, spent a day of preparation in shirtsleeves organizing the piece of business which would form their act. With utter disregard of their ages (Keaton, 56, Chaplin, 63), they danced and tumbled, experimented, repeated. Over and over Chaplin twirled, tripped, rolled across the footlights into the orchestra pit where worried grips stood by to catch him. Time and time again Keaton staggered from the wings, crashed awkwardly into the piano and fell to the floor in a flutter of music sheets. Stagehands, dancers, musicians sat in bemused groups breaking into laughter, applauding as they watched a show no one else would ever see.
The 11 pages long article, titled “Chaplin at Work”, explained Chaplin’s way of shooting Limelight. One paragraph revolved around the impressive event of two of the funniest men of the century working together.