Sherlock Jr.

Don't you miss the days when films were "attractions"?

Sherlock Jr is only 44 minutes long, including credits. Buster Keaton manages to cram so much into just five reels, it boggles the mind. Not a second is wasted, from small-scale gags involving lost dollar bills or poisoned drinks, to a nailbiting sequence in which Keaton unwittingly rides the handlebars of an unmanned motorcycle. The cycle miraculously dodges perilous obstacles, clearing an oncoming train and driving along a collapsing bridge before he finally realises the driver has fallen off. These stunts were genuinely performed by Keaton. He only once used a stunt double (for a pole vaulting trick in College), and he would frequently even stand in for the other actors. Throughout his career he risked his life countless times for the sake of a laugh. Years after filming Sherlock Jr, he would discover that one stunt fractured his neck – that very take is in the finished film!

Buster Keaton’s nameless character is the projectionist at a movie house, as well as an amateur detective. He is also rather fond of a young lady (Kathryn McGuire), but he has a rival suitor (Ward Crane). When the suitor steals and pawns a pocket watch belonging to the lady’s father (Joe Keaton), the evidence is planted on Buster and he is ejected from the family home. Heartbroken, he goes back to work in the projection room. Here he falls asleep and dreams of stepping into Hearts and Pearls, the film he has been projecting. He becomes Sherlock Jr, a detective hired to solve the mystery of the missing pearls, while the other characters take on the images of their real life counterparts. But as Sherlock Jr, Buster is able to outwit his enemies at every turn.

Our hero finds himself asleep

Keaton had a rule that all his gags must be physically possible, no matter how spectacular. The gimmick of a dream sequence allows him for once to break that rule, which gives Sherlock Jr a magical, ethereal quality. He can climb directly into a movie where the scenery changes around him (a stunning trick using surveyors’ equipment to achieve apparently seamless cutting between locations), as well as escaping via a suitcase and a seemingly solid wall.

The thread that holds this all together is Keaton’s conviction. His quiet, deadpan screen persona portrays more emotion than all the mugging and cloying sentimentality in the world. He never asks for the sympathy of the audience, and that is precisely how he earns it. The action sequences are infused with genuine energy – although the material is funny, he doesn’t simply “play it for laughs”. When he runs from his pursuers it’s not a joke, it’s a thrilling chase that just happens to be funny too. This makes Keaton’s films more accessible to modern audiences too, bypassing the overstated performances and boistrous violence that marks a lot of silent comedy.

The scenery switches on hero: "I coulda sworn there was a tree there!"

Tribute has been paid to Sherlock Jr many times since it was made over eighty years ago. Chuck Jones’ classic Duck Amuck stars an irate Daffy Duck being placed in inappropriate scenery by a mischievous animator, while Woody Allen’s wonderful The Purple Rose of Cairo reverses Keaton’s fourth-wall-breaking device by having a character step out of a movie into real life. But the best tribute I can pay is to shut up now, lest I turn anyone off. See you, in flickering dreams…

Five pork pies out of five

2 Responses to “Sherlock Jr.”

  1. great review, sherlock jr is brilliant. i need to check out keaton’s the general, that’s supposed to be his masterpiece

  2. Thanks very much, glad you agree about Sherlock Jr. The General is definitely one of Keaton’s masterpieces, but he was pretty consistently great throughout the 1920s.

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