|Buster Keaton's projectionist enters the movie screen in Sherlock Jr.|
Buster Keaton is a household name among cinephiles and often compared to Charlie Chaplin. Like the Stones and the Beatles, each guy has a devoted group of fervent admirers. Chaplin is more well-known among general audiences, but a vocal fan base considers Keaton’s work superior. It’s essentially a futile argument, but it’s fun to battle over which silent film comedian deserves the top prize. I’m more familiar with Chaplin’s work but have enjoyed my limited exposure to Keaton. I was introduced to Sherlock Jr. in a high school film class and amazed to discover such a physical talent. A recent podcast gave me the excuse to revisit this 1924 film, and the results exceeded my fond memories. The creativity of the dream sequence remains stunning today, especially given the technology of the time. Keaton also foretold the formula that we now take for granted in our modern action films.
Keaton plays an unnamed projectionist trying to court The Girl (Kathryn McGuire) despite having almost no money. When his rival The Local Sheik (Ward Crane) plants a pawn slip for a stolen watch on the unsuspecting guy, his chances with his lady disappear. The Girl’s father (Joe Keaton) will not have a petty criminal involved with his daughter! After slinking back to his job at the theater, the projectionist falls asleep and dreams of entering the movie. He casts himself as the master detective Sherlock Jr., the “world’s greatest detective”. This film in his dream follows the template of an action film and even includes what Roger Ebert called The Fallacy of the Talking Killer. The bad guy could kill Sherlock but decides to explain his plans and give him enough time to escape. Popular through the Bond films, this appearance reminds us that it’s hardly a new trend.
|Keaton did amazing physical stunts long before the days of CGI.|
The dream’s comic car chase includes near-misses, clever stunts, and an endless series of obstacles that keep appearing to prevent their escape. There’s even a big explosion that’s surprising for such an early film. This normal guy has extraordinary abilities to avoid danger, even if it’s just inside his own subconscious mind. What are we to make of the projectionist’s dream? He’s obviously watched countless films, and their influence has drifted into his brain. It’s easy for movie fans to sympathize with this experience. He’s experiencing a high-flying adventure that would never happen in real life. A guy who’s scrounging through trash for spare dollars (and misses a lucrative wallet!) is living quite a dreary existence. Reading a book on “How the Be a Detective” probably won’t be enough to solve his problems.
“The mastermind had completely solved the mystery, with the exception of locating the pearls and finding the thief.” – Title Card
Despite his action-movie skills, the projectionist even struggles in his dream. The changing backdrops hilariously send him flailing in every direction. He prepares to dive into the water on a beach, but the scene shifts quickly and sends him tumbling into the snow. The projectionist’s ineptitude takes over his dream, and he ends up drowning in the end. The last scene in the boat (formerly a car) could resemble the final moments of a James Bond film. The guy and girl have escaped the pursuing horde, and they can finally spend a moment together. Dreams are rarely so simple, however. His lack of confidence doesn’t allow the projectionist to have such a happy ending. That moment does occur in real life, though The Girl’s ingenuity solves the case. The projectionist’s attempts to follow the villain earlier failed when The Local Sheik locked him in a train car. The inept pursuit provides great comedy yet brings little success.
|The projectionist narrowly misses a moving train in his action-movie dream.|
Keaton’s incredible stunts have lost none of their luster during the past 90 (!!) years since the original release. Running across the top of a moving train is impressive, but going in the opposite direction is even crazier. That moment culminates in a leap onto a railroad water tank that resulted in a fractured neck. The amazing part is that Keaton didn’t realize it for many years. The out-of-control bike results in many inspired gags, including a drive across an unfinished bridge. The comic timing is remarkable, especially when you consider the technology of that era. Keaton isn’t using a stunt double and is riding that motorcycle as it weaves through traffic and has many close calls. Organizing these sequences to ensure safety but promise danger required serious planning from a real master.
Within all the hijinks, there’s a game of billiards that’s surprisingly tense. It follows Hitchcock’s model of using the audience’s knowledge that characters don’t have to build suspense. A prime example is the excruciating scene in Sabotage with the bomb on a bus. In Sherlock Jr., we know that the bad guys have hidden a bomb in a certain ball that will kill the projectionist when it’s struck. Keaton extends this scene for a long time while the balls come extremely close to the bomb. We forget that it’s a dream and there’s no real danger. Keaton uses a wide range of trick shots to hit every ball instead of the one with the bomb. It’s a wonderfully executed sequence that feels ahead of its time. The final gag provides a satisfying relief and doesn’t feel like a cheat. It takes real skills to manipulate the audience and not lose our trust. We’re having way too much fun to have concerns about deception. Keaton has us in the palm of his hand, and all we can do is enjoy the ride.