Until quite recently silent films were something I was completely unfamiliar with. But when you're considering the medium of film, visual storytelling is the foundation by which your story is told. Nowhere is that foundation more readily observed than in silent film. These are just a few of the things that struck me while watching my first 3 silent comedies. I’ve seen Buster Keaton’s The Navigator and The General and Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid. The first thing I noticed in watching the Keaton films (I watched The General first) is how Buster Keaton doesn’t ever change his expression. You’d think in a film where you can’t hear what’s being said that as an actor you’d be going overboard with facial expression. But because Keaton’s comedy is physical he let’s the sight-gags and the physicality do the work. And the really weird thing is it’s funnier that he’s not making these over-the-top facial expressions. I laughed out loud more during that movie than almost all of the comedies I’ve ever seen. It’s just plain hilarious. Keaton is doing these entire films almost completely dead-pan.
The physical stuff Keaton’s doing is astounding. He’s like a rag doll. The interesting thing in watching the Keaton films is that the story is somewhat secondary to the physical comedy. Having also watched The Kid I was exposed to a different brand of comedy from the same era. Chaplin is more interested in the story. At least this is true in The Kid. Chaplin’s physical comedy is really great. But rather than use mainly sight-gags and prat-falls Chaplin chooses to use circumstance and scenario. There’s this great moment in The Kid when The Kid leaves the house in the morning and picks up a few stones as he goes. The next thing you see is him using the stones to break windows. He then runs away as fast as he can. The very next frame is Chaplin walking by the house that has the broken window with a window repair kit strapped to his back. I laughed out loud. The reason is they didn’t bother telegraphing the joke. The whole thing happens within 20 or 30 seconds. They don’t give you this huge set up. All throughout the film Chaplin is subtly developing this amazing love and loyalty with the character of The Kid so that by the last couple of scenes in the movie you’re almost balling. The other thing I find interesting about Chaplin is he chooses to use more facial expression. Still not crazy or unnecessary. And this is the thing I noticed with both Keaton and Chaplin: the eyes. There’s a great deal of discussion regarding the noticeable transition from “stage acting” to “film acting.” If you watch many of the early movies it’s obvious that the actors are stage actors and that the concept of how their facial expressions and physical movements are picked up by the camera is not something they yet understand. Much of the credit for this transition and the pioneering of “film acting” is given to Marlon Brando’s performance in On The Waterfront. And granted, Brando had the challenge of dealing with having dialogue as well as physicality. However, if you watch Keaton and Chaplin, specifically Chaplin, you will see a whole performance just taking place in the eyes. They intrinsically knew something about how to communicate what was going on inside their heads with the use of their eyes. If you watch the look in Chaplin’s eyes when he thinks he’s lost The Kid for good you will see years of loss. It is inspiring to watch. One last thing I must comment on in The Kid is the “Dreamland” sequence. It is amazing and brilliant and something that I absolutely didn’t expect to see. I feel that in some way it must have been an inspiration to people like Terry Gilliam, Peter Jackson, P. T. Anderson, Martin Scorcese, etc. People who have great visual sensibility.