Festival Report: Keaton & Chaplin in Kansas

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Quite by chance, Joseph Frank Keaton, better known as "Buster," was born on the road in Piqua. Kansas, on October 4, 1895. There you'll find the Birthplace Museum, but little else, aside from an abandoned railway station, a filling station, and a forlorn halfbreed Dalmatian puppy. A few miles up the road in Iola, Kansas, however, there is an annual Buster Keaton Festival held at the Bowlus Fine Arts Center, a million-dollar cultural facility when it was built in 1964. It would be a multi-million dollar facility were it to be built today, astonishingly located in a town of fewer than 7,000 people in Southeastern Kansas.

The 5th Annual Festival, funded by the Kansas Humanities Council, coordinated by Clyde Toland and Bowlus Director Mary Martin, and held September 26-27, 1997, paired Keaton and Chaplin: "Everyman & The Little Tramp." It was my good fortune to be invited there as a "humanities scholar," for I found myself in excellent company.

The main speaker at the Festival and winner of this year's "Buster" award was the accomplished British critic and reviewer David Robinson. who has authored more books than the other speakers combined, including books on both Keaton and Chaplin. His biography Chaplin: His Life and Art (McGraw-Hill, 1985) was the source for the film Chaplin, directed by Sir Richard Attenborough in 1992 and starting Robert Downey Jr. as the Little Tramp and Geraldine Chaplin as her own grandmother. Robinson served as advisor to the film. For 20 years he was film critic for the London Times, and he currently serves as director of the prestigious Pordenone Festival of Silent Cinema in Italy. At the Festival Robinson discussed the FBI's political vandetta against Chaplin which resulted in Chaplin's exile after 1952.

Dan Kamin, a professional mime and comedian, opened the Festival in grand fashion with about as fine an analysis of gesture and body language as I have ever seen. Kamin coached Robert Downey Jr. for the film Chaplin. He also coached Johnny Depp for his role in the film Benny and Joon and created the physical comedy sequences for both films. He is the author of Charlie Chaplin's One Man Show (1984), which analyzes Chaplin's mimetic art. After reading this book, Downey called Kamin and said "I need some help, and you're probably the only one who can help me pull this off."

Bonnie McCourt from California, who founded the Charlie Chaplin Film Company and launched its quarterly magazine Limelight with David Totheroh in 1994, also worked as an extra on the Chaplin film. David Totheroh is the grandson of Chaplin's cameraman, Rollie Totheroh. Jeffrey Vance, United Artist archivist for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, completed the Chaplin delegation to the Festival. Jeffrey is co-author with the late Lita Grey Chaplin (Chaplin's second wife) of Wife of the Life of the Party, scheduled for publication in March of 1998.

A topic of continuing conversation off-stage at the Festival was Kenneth S. Lynn's hateful new book Charlie Chaplin and His Times (Simon & Schuster, 1997), an oddly hostile treatment of the man "and his times" that generally ignores the wonderful achievements of the artist. This disagreeable revisionist treatment delights in exposing Chaplin as a lecher, possibly a pedophile (Lita Grey-then Lillita McMurray-was only 12 years old when she appeared in The Kid), a Stalinist, and a Commie stooge, but also makes undue comparisons between Chaplin and Hitler far in advance of The Great Dictator. A humorless book about Chaplin would seem highly unlikely, but this one is near the mark.

David Robinson reviewed Lynn's Chaplin for the Los Angeles Times (16 March) and generously found a certain "charm" in Lynn's "frequent Sternean digressions-on tramps, the making of early Hollywood, English music halls, London poverty, sexual identity in the early 20th century and Adolf Hitler. …