Sherlock Jr. (Buster Keaton, 1924)

“Say Mr. Detective, before you clean up any mysteries, clean up this theater!”

At only forty-four minutes long, there is absolutely no reason to not watch this incredible, cinema-obsessed venture into film-making by Buster Keaton. Considering that Keaton is thought of amongst icons of silent-cinema such as Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, it is surprising to note that Keaton’s later life was plagued by financial-problems, alcoholism and – at one point – was even placed in an asylum (marrying a nurse in a drunken ‘black-out’). Sherlock Jr, alongside The General, remains an established staple of silent-comedy – especially as it focuses so much on the practice, production and obsession with cinema many people hold.

Sherlock Jr, akin to many silent feature films, is split into multiple sections. The first section begins with a semi-detective story as Keaton attempts to woo a girl (Kathryn McGuire) and fails to win her love as another admirer (Ward Crane) manages to frame him for a theft – a theft which he failed to solve using his by-the-book detective skills. This then leads into an extended sequence as Keaton, in his job as a projectionist, dreams of becoming the lead in a film – as ‘Sherlock Jr’ – managing to defeat the villain and win the woman.

What is key in the story is how, as a projectionist, there is an underlying context obsessed with the nature of cinema. The ‘dream-sequence’ unto itself is playful but incredibly cine-literate as Buster manages to appear in different genres and locations. The entire parallel between a film and reality is something that I am sure many cinema-goers appreciate – visually replacing the characters on-screen with the ‘reality’ in Keaton’s scenario isn’t too far from an audience watching Bridesmaids or The Hangover and relating their own friends to the characters on screen. In the final moments, Keaton directly looks to the cinema to inspire and inform him of what to do to win the heart of the lady – directly imitating the actions of the romantic-lead on the screen to win her love in reality. The fantasy of film and influence of cinema summarised through comedy – I tip my [pork pie] hat to you Mr. Keaton.

Though the themes remain innovative, it is the execution of the dream sequence that must be praised. Mounting a list of “Top Dream Sequences”, this end act would be up there with the ballet-dance in The Red Shoes and the fascinating Dali-surrealist sequence in Spellbound. Technically, the beginning of the dream shows Keaton walk from the audience and directly into the film interacting with the characters on screen. But then Keaton truly becomes cheeky as the scene on screen cuts to another, as Keaton remains on screen. He sits on a mound of sand in a desert; *snap*; he is suddenly sat on small island in the sea. This continues between different locations, as Keaton moves within the frame, and then manages to re-emerge as the character Sherlock Jr. This means that he can now continue to use the editing techniques but within the story-within-the-story – and the moment “Sherlock” walks through a half-safe, half-door, for a moment it feels like he has stepped into a third alternate world righting the wrongs of the character who set Keaton up in the first act (indeed, there is no resolution to Ward Crane’s characters theft except in the dream). This type of intelligent narrative constructed using techniques that were incredibly new for the time period simply says how ahead of his time Keaton was. Story-within-stories became the central point-of-interest for Christopher Nolan’s Inception and reflecting on reality through fantasy is not too far from the surrealism of Charlie Kaufman – and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind equally managed to use a wide variety of editing and production techniques to fool the audience. Not far from how Keaton manages to fool us as he leaps through a window and manages to completely change outfit as he passes through.

Buster Keaton remains an legend within the history of cinema – and this film clearly shows how great a director and actor he was. Roumiana Deltcheva manages to combine many of the elements discussed in one swift sentence stating how from a social perspective it fantasises “about upward mobility in American society ” whilst, on a “psychological plane it introduces the motif of the double striving for fulfilment in imaginary spaces, as the protagonist is unable to achieve it in ordinary, tangible reality”. A topic Keaton further explores in The Cameraman, it is Sherlock Jr that sets the standard and, if you haven’t seen a silent film before, then this wouldn’t be bad place to start! Keaton certainly cleaned up the cinema with a truly ground-breaking – and literal scene-stealing – comedy.
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