Joseph Frank “Buster” Keaton

Buster Keaton was born into a family of vaudeville performers in Kansas , and was also named the sixth Joseph in a long line of family members named Joseph. In later life, Keaton would tell a story of how he recieved the nickname “Buster.” One day while tumbling in his family’s vaudeville act, Harry Houdini was in the audience and remarked that he was quite a real “buster” for taking some great falls. In The Three Keatons, he was known as the indestructible boy.

At the age of 21, Keaton’s father’s alcoholism threatened the stability of the vaudeville act and he and his family began to move into the new medium of film. Keaton then served in the U.S. Army in France  during World War I. During this time he suffered a severe ear infection that impaired his hearing for the rest of his life.

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Upon his return to domestic life, Keaton met Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle ad together they partnered on several comedic films that led to the height of Fatty Arbuckle’s career. After learning much about the film business Arbuckle, Buster Keaton headed out to become an independent film maker starting with films like The Cameraman, Steamboat Bill, Jr., and The Passionate Plumber. These were soon followed with classics like Sherlock Jr. and feature length  movies, like The General.

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In 1928, Keaton’s life spiraled out of control. He signed with MGM and lost many of his film making rights. With the advent of talkies, Keaton fell out of favor. His wife, actress Natalie took their two kids and divorced Keaton leaving him to sink alcoholism and depression. In 1934 he filed for bankruptcy with assets totaling $12,000.

Through the 1940s and 1950s he made a steady comeback starring as himself in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard and Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight. Keaton reissued The General that was met with tremendous praise and in 1959, he was awarded a special Academy Award. He suffered from cancer and passed away in his home in Hollywood Hills in 1966.

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Sherlock, Jr. (1924) Review

8/24/14

Sherlock, Jr. (1924) Director: Joseph Frank “Buster” Keaton

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★★★★★

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 dreams 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.

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This film was largely a “buster” when it was released, even after Keaton spent considerable time compiling it, in fact, he spent even more time on Sherlock Jr. than most 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. These types of remarkable scenes are replete throughout Buster Keaton’s movies.