Charlie Chaplin was perhaps the most famous person on the planet for the first half of the 20th century; since then, Buster Keaton has slowly risen in esteem, to the point where he’s now regarded as Chaplin’s superior in filmmaking (true) and in comic genius (endlessly arguable). 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.
One of the loveliest grace notes of the DVD revolution is the way that it has goosed the restoration and release of silent film: Almost all the early short work of both comedians is represented on disc, from the two-volume Arbuckle & Keaton set (Kino), which packages Buster’s apprenticeship with Fatty Arbuckle, to Image’s three-volume The Chaplin Mutuals and the single-disc Charlie Chaplin: The First National Collection. (Earlier work is collected on three Chaplin’s Essanay Comedies discs, but poor print quality makes them a dicey first stop.)
The creme pies de la creme pies, however, are two boxed sets. The imaginatively titled Charlie Chaplin Boxed Set (Image) includes the Tramp’s four peak moments: The Gold Rush (1925), City Lights (1931), Modern Times (1936), and The Great Dictator (1940), each a more ambitious social comedy than the one preceding it. Kino’s astounding Art of Buster Keaton box packages all 10 features and all 19 shorts on 10 discs, with an 11th disc of rarities like home movies, 1950s TV appearances, and the lost ending to 1921’s Hard Luck.
Can’t splurge on a box? Start by renting City Lights—Chaplin’s most confident fusion of pratfalls and pathos—and Sherlock Jr., in which Keaton plays a projectionist who dreams his way into his movie and rides the edits like a Zen surfer. Then go from there—and may you never decide for yourself which one of these giants was “better.”