Chaplin and Keaton's Emotional Mechanics:
An Interview with Dan Kamin
By Dan Lybarger
September 3, 1997
The silent comedies of actor-directors Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977) and Buster Keaton (1895-1966) have had a strong impact on many people, but they’ve had a special influence on Dan Kamin.
Speaking from his home in Pittsburg, PA, he says, "When I discovered their films when I was in school, I diverted from a career in visual arts to a career in theatre. I’ve done a kind of illusionary theatre involving a lot of physical comedy and mime. I’m a stage performer primarily because of people like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton."
Since 1970, Kamin has performed his mime act at such diverse venues as the White House, Lincoln Center and the London International Mime Festival. He’s scheduled to demonstrate the differences between Chaplin and Keaton at the Fifth Annual Keaton Celebration in Iola, KS on September 26-27. His presentation will be at 11:00 am on the 26th. After that he is slated to conduct workshops at Benedictine College in Atchison, KS on September 29.
Kamin explains his fascination with the two comics by stating, "They are the two great visual thinkers of the century." Part of the reason the two comics are still revered is that neither is a mere clown. He states, "With Chaplin, you have the outrage of the moralist (in movies like The Kid and Modern Times) in addition to the comedy. With Keaton, you have this philosophical-surrealist, fatalistic kind of view (in Sherlock Jr. and The Navigator) on life, which links him to larger movements in the arts. The tone of Keaton’s films was very much in tune with contemporary sensibilities. He’s presenting a person in the cogs of fate that is probably more compatible to a second half of the century audience than the time when he was making it. For Chaplin, it’s the plight of an individual in an inhumane society. There’s a cry of outrage in his films like there is in (Charles) Dickens’ novels. Whereas in Keaton’s films there’s more of a placid acceptance of the way the world works. "
Kamin can speak with authority on both comics, but he is especially knowledgeable about Chaplin. He’s the author of Charlie Chaplin’s One Man Show, a book that explains how Chaplin’s pantomime techniques work. Kamin says his book offers a unique perspective. He elaborates, "Many people have written books about Chaplin, but nobody had written one from the point of view of a performer. People will say, ‘Chaplin was a great actor,’ but what does that tell you other than, ‘Boy, that’s good?’ I wanted to know more about the mechanics of how he caused you to be able to ‘see’ thought. As a practitioner, I wanted to know for myself. I was so overwhelmed when I first saw the films; I couldn’t look at them from the outside. After watching them over and over, I started gradually to see details with how the other people were performing and notice the kinds of things I talk about in the book, the technique (Chaplin) is using to command your attention so firmly."
While Kamin has also studied Keaton and respects his work he adds, "I don’t think there’s a book of mine of that type to talk about Keaton. The wonderful things about Keaton are the conceptual and the director’s insights. Keaton as a performer is not as complex to talk about as Chaplin."
Kamin’s studies of both comics have allowed him to contribute to some recent movies that recall silent comedy. For example, he helped Robert Downey, Jr. give an Oscar-nominated performance in Richard Attenborough’s Chaplin. Kamin recalls, "It was a dream come true. When I go the opportunity to work in films, it was an opportunity to apply what I had learned in all my years of working on stage and to bring it back to film, especially to work on Chaplin. I was eager to contribute in any way I could." Kamin says that his work was challenging. "We began working on the task of transforming (Downey) into a credible Charlie Chaplin and that was by breaking down his posture. Charlie Chaplin had extraordinarily good posture in real life and in his films. And Robert does not."
Kamin also taught Johnny Depp the Chaplin and Keaton routines he performed in Benny and Joon, and he even devised the techniques to make Lisa Marie a believable Martian in human disguise in Mars Attacks! To give her the proper unearthly quality, Kamin found an inspiration that precedes Keaton and Chaplin. He says, "We began by going to the zoo. We searched around until we found an animal that seemed to have the characteristics we wanted the Martians to have. We found a lizard called the ‘basilisk.’ Lizards are very still until they move, then their tongues will flash out. They have a scary quality about them, hence their use in monster movies."
While Kamin has been able to introduce new audiences to the magic of how Keaton, Chaplin and even lizards move, he says that watching the comics’ original movies is still a unique experience. "When you’re watching performers like Chaplin and Keaton, you’re watching performers who were capable of mesmerizing you with just their physical acting. There’s not too many people who can do that anymore."
This page was last updated on 10/29/97.