EVERY INCH OF FOOTAGE HOLDS SUCH A LAUGH!
Some time in the 1930s, Buster Keaton went through a routine medical exam. An X-ray showed that he had fractured his neck, something the actor was unaware of. He realized that the damage was the result of an injury he suffered while making Sherlock, Jr. many years earlier. There’s a scene where Buster is hit by a violent gush of water from a waterspout; unprepared for the force of the water, Keaton hit his head and complained of headaches for days afterwards. His fans probably have more pleasant memories of a film that has become one of the comedian’s most loved.
A young man (Keaton) is juggling two tasks – working as a projectionist at a local movie theater, he’s also studying to become a detective. He’s fallen in love with a young woman (Kathryn McGuire) and buys her a box of chocolates for one dollar, which is all he can afford. He has a rival though in the shape of a ”local sheik” (an old term meant to describe a man who is irresistible in the eyes of romantic women). He steals and pawns the girl’s father’s pocket watch for $4 and buys a $3 box of chocolates for the girl. After being framed by the sheik, the young man is suspected of having stolen the pocket watch and is rejected by the girl.
Back at the theater, he shows a film about a detective figuring out who stole a pearl necklace, but falls asleep next to the projector. The young man soon finds himself inside the movie…
A landmark comedy
Not immediately recognized as a major motion picture by audiences in 1924, Sherlock, Jr. is nevertheless a landmark comedy described by many later filmmakers as a lasting influence on their work. It may seem like a simple movie on paper, with a very short running time, but this is ultimately a comment on the nature of film and fantasy and its suggestive power. Keaton had explored dreams in an earlier short, The Playhouse (1921), and continues in the same vein here, throwing his hero into the very film that his projector is showing.
One of the most groundbreaking feats takes place just as Keaton steps into the celluloid screen. A succession of scenes in different locations is held together by Keaton positioned at exact places. It looks easy, and modern audiences won’t even see how this is remarkable, but the filmmakers used mathematics to maintain a perfect illusion. What follows next is a series of slapsticky situations that don’t look different from Keaton’s usual routines… were it not for the occasional, completely surreal scenes that remind us of the fact that Buster is trapped inside a fantasy. There’s one for instance where he disappears into a wall that reminded me of a 1940s cartoon with, say, Wile. E. Coyote. If you’re in a surrealist fantasy, you don’t have to bother with physical limitations.
The final ten or fifteen minutes of the film is a madcap chase, some of its breakneck sequences achieved by playing them backwards. Packed with special effects, and very fast-moving, the chase looks like it belongs in a spy thriller. Keaton himself is fun to watch, both as the lovably clumsy projectionist and as the suave detective in the fantasy.
The final scene has a conclusion that largely takes place off screen, as the projectionist wakes up to the fact that his honor has been restored. Reunited with the girl, he’s looking to impress her and catches the final moments of the film that he was a part of. He imitates the actor, and this brilliant ending is an early comment on what most of us experience sometimes – we identify with a character onscreen we find appealing or fascinating to a point where the line between us begins to blur.
Sherlock, Jr. 1924-U.S. Silent. 45 min. B/W. Produced by Buster Keaton, Joseph M. Schenck. Directed by Buster Keaton. Screenplay: Clyde Bruckman, Jean Havez, Joe Mitchell. Cinematography: Byron Houck, Elgin Lessley. Cast: Buster Keaton (Projectionist/Sherlock, Jr.), Kathryn McGuire (The Girl), Ward Crane (The Local Sheik), Joseph Keaton, Erwin Connolly.
Last word: “We built what looked like a motion picture screen and actually built a stage into that frame but lit in such a way that it looked like a motion picture being projected on a screen. But it was real actors and the lighting gave us the illusion, so I could go out of semi-darkness into that well-lit screen right from the front row of the theater right into the picture. Then when it came to the scene changing on me when I got up there, that was a case of timing and on every one of those things we would measure the distance to the fraction of an inch from the camera to where I was standing, also with a surveying outfit to get the exact height and angle so that there wouldn’t be a fraction of an inch missing on me, and then we changed the setting to what we wanted it to be and I got back into that same spot and it overlapped the action to get the effect of the scene changing.” (Keaton explaining the scenes where he steps into the movie, “Buster Keaton: Interviews”)