Sunday, March 16, 2014

Sherlock Jr. (1924)

Director: Buster Keaton                                     Writer: Jean Havez & Joe Mitchell
Producer: Buster Keaton                                   Cinematography: Elgin Lessley
Starring: Buster Keaton, Kathryn McGuire, Joe Keaton and Ward Crane

Buster Keaton was like most of the great silent comedians, even when they began making features they still would produce the occasional short. Keaton had made two features the year before, Three Ages and Our Hospitality, and his only film in 1924 was this release, one of his greatest shorts, Sherlock Jr. The idea came about because once Keaton went into features he had wisely decided to give up on what he called “impossible” gags, or cartoon gags that had no basis in reality. Instead he wanted his gags to evolve naturally from the story. But he and his writers, by the time they had finished with those two features, had a backlog of great gag ideas that they couldn’t use. So Keaton came up with the idea of having a projectionist fall asleep and his spirit come to life to act in a film up on the screen, thus justifying the use of the unrealistic gags. This, then, is the genesis for one of the greatest screen comedies of the silent screen.

The story begins with Keaton working at a small movie theater, but at the same time studying to be a detective. There’s a great sequence at the beginning of the film where he wants to get Kathryn McGuire some chocolates but only has two dollars instead of three. He finds a dollar in the trash he’s sweeping but before he can go, two women and a man come along who have lost money and he almost winds up with nothing. At McGuire’s house, while Keaton is courting her, rival Ward Crane comes in and steals her father’s pocket watch and frames Keaton for it. So, that night at the theater when he falls asleep in the projection room, he imagines Crane, McGuire and her father, Keaton’s own father Joe, on screen and he becomes the great Sherlock Jr. who is brought in to solve the case of the missing pearls. The most well-known sequence in the film is when Keaton jumps directly into the movie screen and has to deal with all of the scene changes. Trick photography at its silent era finest was provided by Elgin Lessley who used surveyor’s instruments to make sure the scenes matched.

Keaton is terrific as Sherlock Jr., first making his appearance like his character in The Saphead with an elegant suit and top hat. One of the finest aspects of the film, however, is the unsung work of Ford West. He’s tremendous as Keaton’s sidekick, always showing up in great disguises to get him out of a jam, especially the sequence when he’s dressed as a motorcycle cop and pulls Keaton over for running too fast. One wishes that the idea could have been explored in more depth in other films. Keaton always loved trains and they are featured in this production as well. In one scene, where he jumps from the top of the moving train onto the water tower and is splashed onto the tracks below, he didn’t find out until a dozen years later that he had actually fractured his neck during the stunt. One of the things that probably makes the film so good is that it was never intended to be a short subject, but during previews Keaton was unsatisfied with certain sequences that tended to make the film drag. Ruthlessly, he cut the film down and by the time he was satisfied it was simply too short to play as a feature. Nevertheless, Sherlock Jr. is one of the all-time great films from one of the all-time greatest comedians of the twenties.

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