More recently attention has flowed to Keaton's lesser-known features, which allowed him to vary his screen character in unexpected ways. As a groom pursued by hordes of brides (and giant rocks) in Seven Chances (1925) Keaton performed some of his best stuntwork. Go West (1925) is a very dry send-up of Chaplin's pathos in a romance of a forlorn cowpoke in love with a cow. Battling Butler (1926), his most popular feature at the time, mixes witty social satire with some of Keaton's best acting work. The Three Ages (1923), a parody of D.W. Griffith's Intolerance, and College (1927), a reworking of Harold Lloyd's The Freshman, are relatively minor works that would loom large in anyone else's career.
While The General has long been considered Keaton's textbook classic, it is the dreamlike Sherlock Jr. (1924) that excites the most interest in Keaton today. A fantasy about a film projectionist who literally walks into the screen of a melodrama he's screening, it is at once a dazzling comedy and a commentary on the illusions of the medium Keaton had mastered. Its self-reflective structure anticipates Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo (and for that matter The Last Action Hero) and is still fresh today.
Without his knowledge, Keaton's independent studio was sold to Metro Goldwyn Mayer in 1927. His last two silent features, The Cameraman (1928) and Spite Marriage (1929) - neither as of this writing available on DVD - reflect his struggles with MGM to create films in his old free way and while both have excellent passages (and are indeed good comedies), both films reflect studio interference, in the way Keaton's classic screen character was pushed to asking for sympathy.
Chaplin in the 1920s
Charlie Chaplin, his critics would say, never stopped asking for sympathy. And undeniably, he created some of his finest and most popular films in the 1920s. The Kid (1921) is a heartrending tale of the Tramp and an orphan (Jackie Coogan, a splendid natural actor) who fall in together. (And I highly recommend the illuminating bonus disc, as well.) The Pilgrim (1923), with Chaplin in disguise as a minister, risked offending a conservative nation, and his drama A Woman of Paris (1923), which Chaplin wrote and directed but only made a cameo in, lost audiences with its amoral fable. (Its light touch, on heavy themes, was highly influential on later filmmakers, notably Ernst Lubitsch.)
The Gold Rush
Chaplin, who released his own films from A Woman of Paris on through a major studio he co-owned, United Artists, restored his fortunes and popularity with the hugely successful The Gold Rush (1925). The film placed his character for once not against the background of a slum and/or a few people, but (in Keaton-like fashion) against Nature and great events (in this case, the Yukon Gold Rush of the 1890s). The film exists today in two cuts, the original, with a happy ending, and a 1942 version narrated by Chaplin, which omits the original cute finale.
His last work that decade, The Circus (1928), was a good film made under the very trying conditions of a widely publicized divorce. Somewhat self-reflexive - like his later Limelight (1952), it's a film about a comedian's relationship with his audience - it only hints at its difficult gestation with a rather pinched bitterness.
Harold Lloyd in Speedy
Lloyd, Langdon and other stars
Bitterness was a quality completely lacking in the work of the twenties' most popular comedian: Not Chaplin, who'd lost that particular crown by the end of the decade; not Keaton, whose films averaged a half-million in grosses each. It was Harold Lloyd. This small-town Nebraskan lacked the theatrical childhood of his rivals and became a comic star through clever imitation and sheer hard work. Chaplin's blockbuster The Gold Rush made four million dollars, but Lloyd's most popular films (Safety Last, The Freshman) made a million dollars more. And like Keaton, he produced two features a year from 1922 to 1928. Always likeable and energetic, Lloyd's screen character was usually a go-getting young man caught by circumstances in events he could not control (e.g., the legendary building climb of Safety Last). While many Lloyd comedies still produce hearty audience laughter when screened today, quite a few gags seem forced and contrived, often not growing organically out of his character (which is always the case in both Keaton and Chaplin's films). Despite that, several of his films remain excellent: Girl Shy (1924), The Freshman (1925), The Kid Brother (1927) and Speedy (1928).
Curious viewers can also seek out the third disc of the Slapstick Encyclopedia, which has two representative early 1920s short Lloyd films, Get Out and Get Under and Haunted Spooks.
A nice DVD set is available of the three most famous features starring a man often shortlisted as one of the decade's great comics, Harry Langdon. Langdon was a forty-ish vaudevillian taken up by Mack Sennett in the mid-1920s. His character, which for a season was hugely popular, was that of an extreme innocent ("an elderly baby" in James Agee's phrase); the novelty coming in Harry's halting, baroquely detailed movements.
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