I hear a lot of people say that they can’t “get into” watching silent films. I understand—I really do. Silent film has its own language. As with reading poetry or watching an opera, one has to first crack the code. Some films require less code-breaking than others, and Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr. is a case in point.
Silent comedy can sometimes be easier for the silent film beginner to appreciate than some dour drama. What’s perhaps most fascinating isn’t seeing how much has changed, but seeing what hasn’t. While some will laugh more than others at the antics in Sherlock, Jr., I defy anyone to avoid laughing at all. And when you do—that’s an almost 100 year-old joke that’s cracking you up, which is pretty amazing.
|Buster Keaton daydreaming on the job in Sherlock Jr.|
Sherlock, Jr. isn’t just a good intro to silent film comedy: it’s a good intro to Buster Keaton. Keaton was 24 when he starred in and directed the film for his own production company, Buster Keaton Productions. The film takes full advantage of Keaton’s physical comedy agility—honed from childhood when he took pratfalls as part of a family vaudeville act—but manages to transcend broad humor. It’s funny, yes, but you’ll find it’s something more.
Keaton plays a movie theater projectionist who daydreams about becoming a detective. When a romantic rival sets him up to take the fall for a stolen watch, he sets out to catch the real thief, aided by tips in his amateur sleuthing book—but he fails spectacularly. In a sort of reverse of Purple Rose of Cairo, Keaton falls asleep in the projection room and dreams himself into the film on the screen. We see him leave his body and enter the film as a suave, top-hatted gentleman detective who, in the film-within-a-film, cracks the case and gets the girl.
|His skills as a projectionist are about equal to his skills as a detective.|
The storyline allows for lots of comedy sequences, and it’s almost astounding how many big ones are packed into this film. Keaton is balanced on the handlebars of a motorbike, unaware that the driver had fallen off, as the bike propels him across the countryside for a ridiculously long time. The sequence is as funny as it is breathtaking—a triumph of stunt work.
Perhaps the most famous comedy sequence in Sherlock, Jr. comes when Keaton tails his suspect, literally following behind him as he goes about his business. Trying to evade detection, Keaton ends up on top of a moving train car (Oh, Buster!) and is then doused by a reservoir. Keaton famously did his own stunts (Jackie Chan cites him as a major influence), and it’s a wonder he wasn’t killed. In fact, Keaton broke his neck performing the water tower stunt, and didn’t discover it until much later, when he complained to his doctor of a headache.
Water tower sequence during which Keaton broke his neck:
A lesser-mentioned comedy sequence that deserves mention is a billiard game played by Keaton (as the gentleman detective) and his suspect. The eight-ball has been filled with an explosive in an effort to take out the detective, yet he manages, in a series of increasingly ridiculous shots, to avoid hitting it completely. At one point, Keaton lets the minor characters get the laughs, as the butler describes the inept shots. As the film is silent, it’s interesting how well the shots can be visualized with a few hand gestures. The unseen shots are even funnier than the ones we see.
Yes, the film is funny, and that can’t be overstated, but as I said, the film is something more, which is almost something you have to see for yourself. Keaton’s fantasizing of himself on the screen speaks to the way in which we watch films ourselves, dreaming of ourselves in the roles. When he awakes, he finds that his girl has made everything right, and all is well with the world, yet we see Keaton sneak peeks at the playboy on the screen for tips on how to woo her. There’s an obvious blending of the unreal and the real, as his fantasy affects reality.
|Keaton literally gets into the film he's screening.|
Kathryn McGuire is perhaps best known for playing the girl in the film (she’s literally credited as “The Girl”). She started as a Mack Sennett comedienne and later made some cowboy flicks before retiring from film in 1933. Keep an eye out for the girl’s father: he’s played by Joe Keaton, Buster’s dad, and head of the family of vaudevillians in which he grew up and honed his great physical comedy skills.
The Kino DVD (which is also the version streaming on Netflix) features a jazzy score by the Club Foot Orchestra that manages to seem both modern and timeless. Of course, if you get the chance to see Sherlock, Jr. in an actual theater that shows film, don’t miss the chance. You might just find yourself, like the title character, transported right into the movie.
Sherlock, Jr., full film on YouTube. (Good quality. Does not have the CFO score, though it is scored.)
Full film on Netflix (with account).
Buy Sherlock, Jr. at Amazon.