Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. (1924) – the Friday Classic review
Why do we watch movies? Because, on this evidence, they’re cleverer, cooler, more inventive and just downright funnier than real life.
(Buster Keaton, US, 1924)
Silent comedy gets a bad reputation (largely from people who have hardly seen any) of lacking sophistication, being merely a bunch of quaintly old-fashioned slapstick. Sherlock Jr. – despite resorting in its opening minutes to that old standby, the banana skin – remains the best case for the defense.
At forty-five minutes it barely qualifies as a feature film: indeed, it could be argued that it is two ideas for shorts, one involving a cinema projectionist and the other about a detective, that got spliced together. But in this process, the ideas merge and transform in complex ways, without all the fuss about plot and character that a longer film entails. It’s arguably the birth of Buster Keaton, already a fiercely inventive creator of comedy routines, as a truly great filmmaker.
What makes it so lasting is that it remains a really incisive study of the effect the movies have on our imaginations and habits, a subject that is arguably more pertinent and accessible today than it was in the medium‘s infancy. Keaton’s character is a gauche, clumsy daydreamer, incapable of doing his job properly because the stories he sees on screen have invaded his reality. Shored up on romance and thrillers, he attempts (badly) to court his girl and to solve a crime, in both cases being thwarted by a more worldly-wise rival. It’s no coincidence that the banana skin gag comes during this section – it’s an intentionally lame gambit by the projectionist that falls flat, quite literally.
His failure manifest, the character falls completely into his fantasies, dreaming himself into the movies. An astonishing well-edited sequence sees him beset by an ever-evolving landscape as the film cuts from one scene to another (best of which is Keaton diving into the sea and landing in a hole in the snow). It’s both an amazing display of technique by a director learning what he can achieve with the movies’ sleight of hand, and a thoughtful reflection on how reality is shaped by the filmmaking process into something quite different.
It paves the way for the remainder of the film, which sees the projectionist idealising himself as a screen icon, the eponymous detective Sherlock Jr. In this film-within-a-film, Keaton is resourceful and quite indestructible even when things seem to be going against him: in other words, the not-quite Keaton character in “real” life has fully bloomed into Keaton’s regular screen persona only in the invented reality of the “movie.” So you can throw in a brilliant look at movie acting into the mix, along with the other astute observations about how films work.
Aptly, the bulk of the film’s finest gags appear in the section involving the eponymous fictional detective, showcasing the director’s abilities in composition (Keaton is about to crash into a car, which turns a corner to reveal a hollow chassis through which he can safely ride through) and editing (an extraordinary piece of trickery in which Keaton jumps through a disguise kit and instantly becomes an old crone, much to the confusion of his enemies). Not only is it relentlessly and consistently hilarious but, viewed against the relatively quaint, old-fashioned “real” sections, it’s also a lesson in how much thought Keaton puts into achieving the comedy. Sophisticated? There is more invention, to more purpose, than 90% of Hollywood comedies made this year – and if you‘re not too busy laughing, you‘ll remember why you fell in love with movies in the first place.