The following is my entry in The First Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon, being held on Feb. 8 and 9 at the blog of my so-cute-you-could-pinch-her WordPress “neighbor,” Silent-ology. Click on the image above to read a variety of blogs related to Buster Keaton’s movie, TV, and non-entertainment-related work!
(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)
Sherlock Jr. is a glorious 44 minutes in the history of silent film. It is Buster Keaton taking to the absolute limit the fun you can have with a movie camera, and the movie’s viewers are the lucky recipients of Keaton’s over-indulgence.
As with most Keaton comedies, the premise is fairly simple. Buster is a movie projectionist vying for the hand of a local girl (Kathryn McGuire). But Buster’s romantic rival (Ward Crane) steals a valuable watch from the girl’s father (Joe Keaton) and gets the rap pinned on Buster. Defeated, Buster returns to his job, where he falls asleep and “projects” himself (as “crime-busting criminologist Sherlock Jr.”) into the melodrama he is projecting on the screen.
The set-up is funny enough, with Keaton involved in a number of very funny gags. (One of them included his getting caught in a geyser erupting from a water tower. For years afterward, Keaton suffered blinding headaches for which he had no explanation. Eventually, he discovered he had broken his neck via the water gag.)
But once the dream sequence begins, all stops are out. Buster starts by trying to intervene in the melodrama into which he has inserted himself, only to find the scenery changing with his every move. In The Silent Clowns, Walter Kerr reports that movie-makers boasted of going to see the movie several times and never being able to discern how Keaton pulled off his photographic stunts. Keaton eventually admitted his secrets to biographer Rudi Blesh, but I have no desire to repeat them here, any more than one would want to divulge how a brilliant magician succeeded in his trickery. Don’t try to look for the seams; just glory in the fun.
As if that weren’t enough, Keaton eventually does one of his most grandiose chase scenes, in which he rides on the handlebars of a driverless motorcycle, resulting in some gasp-inducing shots.
(One of the scenes – where Buster narrowly misses getting hit by a train – looks a bit fake; and it is faked, but not in the way you’d expect. Keaton simply filmed the scene in reverse, so that he was in no danger; but Keaton wasn’t quite clever enough to make it look un-faked, with the result that the train looks like it’s on a rear-projection screen. Still, try to see where else he faked this spectacular chase, and you’ll be looking for years.)
The final scene, in which the “real” Buster wins the girl and then looks to the on-screen movie for romantic guidance, is a perfect closer.
Amazingly, Sherlock Jr., which has inspired countless filmmakers and was selected for the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 1991, got only a mixed reception when it was first released. Variety said it was about as funny as “a hospital operating room.” It was only with the “Keaton revival” in the 1950’s and ’60s that the movie got the acclaim it deserved and has received ever since.
For decades, Freudian reviewers have had a field day deconstructing the movie as an exploration of film, the unconscious mind, and just about any psychological topic you can whip up. If that’s your idea of a good time, go to town on the movie. Anyone else can simply savor it as a superbly eye-popping comedy.
In the early 1990’s, Sherlock Jr. was released on video with an offbeat jazz score by a group called The Club Foot Orchestra. This version has remained in circulation, and the score has been a sore spot among Keaton enthusiasts who feel it ill serves the movie. Considering how Keaton never lived in the past and marveled at ’50s icons such as Elvis Presley, I wonder if Keaton wouldn’t have put his stamp of approval on the score.
(If you enjoyed this blog, I encourage you to visit “The Love Nest,” my encyclopedic appreciation of Buster Keaton silent film comedies. The website is at: http://busterkeaton.moviefever.com)