Monday Editor’s Pick: “Sherlock Jr.” (1924)

by on June 19, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Mon June 20 at 7:45 at Film Forum [Program & Tix]
*Live piano accompaniment. **Screening with Keaton’s 1921 two-reeler, “The Boat.”


Buster Mondays continue at Film Forum today through August 8th. Since every screening has so far sold out, we recommend you buy your tickets in advance and get in line early. Its worth it. 
Our more general round-up of Buster Keaton criticism is here. Info on Sherlock Jr. below.


Dave Kehr sums up one of Keaton’s finest and funniest for the Chicago Reader:

This 1924 comedy finds Buster Keaton anticipating most of the American avant-garde of the 70s: he plays a projectionist who falls asleep during the showing of a detective thriller and projects himself into the action. Keaton’s appreciation of the formal paradoxes of the medium is astounding; his observations on the relationship between film and the subconscious are groundbreaking and profound. And it’s a laugh riot, too.



Richard Shickel for TIME, who listed it as one of the top 100 Movies of ALL TIME:

The impeccable comedian directs himself in an impeccable silent comedy. The man with the flat hat and the dead pan has a night job as a movie theater projectionist but daydreams about becoming a famous (and natty) master detective. In real life he is falsely accused by a shameless cad of stealing a watch from his girlfriend’s father. At work that evening he sleepwalks himself into the film he’s projecting (its plot eerily mirrors his real-life problem) and solves the crime in a series of magnificently imaginative, physically perilous, perfectly orchestrated gags. Things work out all right for him as well in the waking world. Is this, as some critics have argued, an example of primitive American surrealism? Sure. But let’s not get fancy about it. It is more significantly, a great example of American minimalism—simple objects and movement manipulated in casually complex ways to generate a steadily rising gale of laughter. The whole thing is only 45 minutes long, not a second of which is wasted. In an age when most comedies are all windup and no punch, this is the most treasurable of virtues.


Imogen Sara Smith in Buster Keaton: The Persistence of Comedy:

Keaton’s one film about film, Sherlock, Jr., is a through-the-looking-glass tale that examines the dreamlike nature of movies—or is it the movie-like nature of dreams?


The project was paradoxical from the start. Keaton’s purest fantasy sprang from his insistence on logic and realism, and his tribute to cinema was inspired by stage magic tricks he remembered from his vaudeville boyhood. Since he believed that such ‘impossible’ gags would interfere with telling a legitimate story, he could only include them by making them occur in a dream, which is also a film-within-a-film.


By creating an inner film that is unreal, Keaton makes the outer film real by contrast; there is one celluloid world where the rules of logic and physics apply, another where they don’t. Thus Keaton demonstrates that while film enables distortions of reality, the filmmaker has a choice—and a responsibility—to clearly delineate fact from fantasy. In one scene, Keaton uses a camera trick (dissolving a wall) to prove that he’s not using a camera trick when he dives through a window and comes out dressed as an old woman. ‘Nothing up my sleeves,’ he is saying. Like any magician, he is not quite telling the truth. He was proud of how many cameramen and film technicians confessed that they’d watched Sherlock, Jr. repeatedly without decoding some of its special effects.


There’s a kind of blissful delirium about the dream-movie; it’s a transcendent celebration of film as fantasy, a world where anything can happen, and the right thing always does.



Chris Baker, improbably enough, for Wired:

On the surface, Sherlock Jr. is a typical Walter Mitty tale: A hapless movie projectionist, framed by a romantic rival for a theft he didn’t commit, fantasizes about becoming a detective and clearing his name. The film is filled with Keaton’s signature acrobatic stunts and delightful visual wit, but things really get interesting when the projectionist falls asleep while screening a drawing-room mystery. Dreaming that the movie characters are his sweetheart and the rival, his dream-self rises, walks up the aisle, and climbs into the screen to confront them. (To achieve this effect, Keaton built a carefully lit set within a set.)


The dream reality tries to expel the interloper—first, his nemesis tosses him back into the audience. (As he lands, we see the snoozing projectionist twitch.) When he clambers back into the screen, the film medium itself appears to shake him loose by abruptly cutting scenes out from under him: The drawing room becomes the front stairs, shutting him out of the house. As he descends, the steps become a garden bench, causing him to take a nosedive. Dusting himself off and sitting down, he lands on his keister in a busy street. And so on—diving off a wave-battered rock, he lands in a snowbank. By precisely matching posture and camera angle from scene to scene, Keaton made it look like reality was shifting around him.


Half a century before Christopher Nolan was born, and long before CGI, Keaton created a vivid world with its own laws and internally consistent logic. Call it the inception of Inception—it probably left just as many folks scratching their heads on the way out.


Bill Weber for Slant:

Sherlock Jr. is just such a clockwork tour de force; running about 45 minutes with no fat, it stands as perhaps its maker’s most delightful creation. Keaton is a movie projectionist in the local theater, obsessed with a dime-store How to Be a Detective book, mustache disguise glued to his face, and engaged in the pursuit of a Mary Pickfordesque cutie (Kathryn McGuire) until he’s framed as a thief by his slick rival. The opening scenes are full of expertly executed bits (Buster reluctantly handing over lost dollar bills to theater patrons as he sweeps up, shadowing the villain in imitative lockstep from three feet behind), but the film takes off when the projectionist dozes in his booth and dreamily enters the potboiler being shown, now populated with the figures of his waking life. (The montage where Keaton first walks into the screen puts him into a new world with each cut, jumping off a seaside rock and landing in a snowbank; it’s an exhilarating set piece that further endeared him to Surrealists.) Reborn as master sleuth Sherlock Jr. in top hat and silk scarf, the projectionist sets about foiling a ring of thieves to offset the humiliation of his real-life failures.


Still immensely satisfying for both its playful structure and eye-popping gags, as when Keaton appears to leap through the torso of an associate to elude baddies in an alleyway, Sherlock Jr. confirmed the maturity and new level of craft evident in Buster’s preceding hillbilly-feud comedy Our Hospitality, and anticipated his steady run of top-flight work in the waning silent years. Roused from his Sherlock fantasy, the projectionist reconciles with his sweetheart by aping the society swells on the theater screen, setting up a final joke about his sexual innocence that echoes the closing sequence of Three Ages. If Keaton’s iconic, solemn young man is hard to envision as a father, it’s because this masterpiece offers him up as a purposeful yet accidental hero, propelled through a hair-raising back-road adventure on the handlebars of a motorbike, unaware that no one’s driving.



John M. Miller provides background on the film’s stunts for TCM:

The driverless motorcycle chase which comprises the climax of the film is a rip-roaring wonder. Keaton performed his own stunts, as usual, and he also doubled for the driver who falls off the cycle at the start of the sequence. As John Bengtson points out in his book Silent Echoes, two shots involving close calls were aided by photographic tricks. In one scene the safe passage of the cycle over a missing section of bridge is only possible with the aid of two passing trucks. This shot was achieved with the help of a horizontally split screen. Later in the sequence Buster seems to narrowly miss an oncoming train at a crossing – only repeated viewing reveals that the shot was safely filmed backwards.


Keaton sustained one of his few movie-related injuries while shooting another scene in Sherlock, Jr., though the damage wasn’t immediately apparent. In the shot, Buster is running atop the boxcars of a moving train. As the end of the train draws near, he effortlessly reaches for the draw rope of a waterspout. The train disappears beneath his feet, but Keaton is apparently safe, as he starts to slowly float to the ground on the slow-moving counter-weight of the waterspout. The gag, however, is that he gets doused by water as the spout opens. The force of the water was greater than expected, and knocked his head onto a rail. He got up and finished the scene, but complained of headaches for days. Many years later, a routine exam with X-rays revealed that he had actually fractured his neck in the incident.


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