Sherlock, Jr. (1924) Director: Joseph Frank “Buster” Keaton
Dreams are blended together with moving pictures in Buster Keaton’s short silent masterpiece, Sherlock Jr. This film offers an abbreviated homage to the art of movie-making as we meet a theatre projectionist who envisions of becoming a detective. His dreams are conveyed in a string of astounding special effects which allow for Buster Keaton to seemingly leap onto the silver screen and live his life within a movie. I was reminded of the magic and trickery used in George Melies’s films. The delineation between life and art is blurred in Sherlock Jr. When life becomes too difficult or disappointing, movies serve as a course of uplifting and life-affirming joy, and Buster Keaton’s films are nothing if not pure joy.
Buster Keaton plays a movie theatre attendant/projectionist who secretly wishes he was a detective. He tries to impress a girl, however he is overshadowed by a “local sheik” –a tough guy who steals the girl’s father’s watch and pawns it in order to buy another box of chocolates. The local sheik then plants the receipt in Keaton’s pocket and Keaton is forced to leave the girl’s house when her father discovers the receipt and blames Keaton. Distraught, he returns to his theatre and falls asleep in the projection room while a film about a stolen pearl necklace plays below in the theatre. We suddenly enter Keaton’s dream (in a way, I was reminded of the dream sequence in Chaplin’s The Kid). In dreamland, Keaton crawls down into the theatre and magically climbs onto the silver screen, appearing suddenly in several different scenes. Finally, he appears as Sherlock, Jr. at a gathering to recover the stolen necklace and he rescues his kidnapped paramour. He outwits the two men who stole the necklace in the film in a great car chase scene. He becomes the hero of his own story, the movie offers him a new life as a detective.
Back in reality, Keaton’s love-interest discovers the truth (that Keaton is innocent) and she visits Keaton’s theatre where he is awakened from his dream and he begins watching a film, seeking advice on how to win back her love. High art is informative as well as entertaining (here I was reminded of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales). She confronts Keaton and he subtly watches the film while it plays behind her in the theatre, and the film instructs him to gently hold her hands, placing a small ring on her finger, and then to kiss her. The next scene of the film shows the actors in the film standing with a few children while Keaton is left looking “stone-faced” and confused now as a father.
This film was largely a “buster” when it was released, even after Keaton spent considerable time compiling it. In fact, he spent more time on Sherlock Jr. than many of his other films. Keaton practiced for four months learning all the trick pool shots shown at the end of the film, and the pool table scene took five full days to capture. Additionally, Keaton was regularly known for completing his own stunts, such as the now-infamous scene at the water basin where, in reality, he slipped and fractured his neck, nearly breaking it and killing him. As was so often the case in Buster Keaton’s films, this brutal take was used in the final cut of the film, unbeknownst to audiences. These types of remarkable scenes are replete throughout Buster Keaton’s movies, and Sherlock Jr. ranks among his finest achievements.
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