December 23, 2014

Sherlock Jr. and the Modern Action Film

Buster Keaton's projectionist enters the screen in Sherlock Jr.
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.

Buster Keaton did amazing physical stunts long before the days of CGI.
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.

Buster Keaton's projectionist narrowly misses a moving train in his action-movie dream.
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.

Happy holidays!

12 comments:

  1. What a rich and insightful review. I hate to admit that I've seen...none of Keaton's work despite owning two of his films (I got them in a Chaplin/Keaton DVD pack). I have seen about half of Chaplin's filmography though, and love him dearly. I really need to watch Keaton's films. Now I feel a stronger urge to!

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    1. Keaton is very different than Chaplin, but I'd highly recommend you check out his work. Sherlock Jr. is a good start because it's just over 40 minutes and has so many memorable moments. I'd also be sure that you see The General, which is his best-known movie.

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  2. I've never seen this one, but I did take an action movie class last semester in which we started by looking at some silent films. The one we looked at was 'The General', along with earlier train-chase movies such as 'The Great Train Robbery' and 'The Lonedale Operator'. In that class, we looked at how these old train-chase movies helped to shape the modern car chase. Actually, I went on to do a whole article inspired by that lecture about the role of trains in action movies. (http://hitchcocksworld.blogspot.ca/2014/09/trains-trains-and-automobiles.html)

    From what you describe, I can certainly see some of the parallels here. There's no denying that Keaton's slapstick had a hand in shaping the action film (along with the swashbuckler films of the 20's and 30's, film noir, the World War II combat film, the gangster film, and the 1960's espionage thriller), I just never realized how big it would have been.

    If I might make a recommendation, you might be interested in taking a look at Unstoppable. It's basically a modern update on the "train-chase" genre, combining it with a lot of elements prevalent in more modern action films.

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    1. I've nearly checked out Unstoppable in the past due to Denzel and usually enjoying Tony Scott films in some fashion, but I haven't gotten to it so far. Interesting points about train-chase movies and how they connect to modern action films. The General is also a great example that could fit. The Great Train Robbery was hugely influential on films on the whole plus the genre. I'll check out your post soon. I appreciate the comment!

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  3. Keaton is great. If you haven't seen them I highly recommend Our Hospitality and Seven Chances, among others.

    I'll also toss out the name Harold Lloyd. He's not a well known today as Chaplin and Keaton, but that's because he retained ownership of his films and they basically never saw the light of day for several decades. He's now sometimes referred to as "the third genius". At his peak in the 1920s he was actually more popular than both Chaplin and Keaton. His classic film is Safety Last! from 1923. The combination of humor and stunts is also quite impressive here. This is the one with the iconic image of the man hanging off a clock on the side of a building. Another one of his to see is The Freshman - a film Keaton would later essentially remake as College.

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    1. Thus far with Keaton, I've only seen The General, Sherlock Jr., and Steamboat Bill Jr. I have still have a lot to see; thanks for the tips! My only exposure to Harold Lloyd was Safety Last! The stunts were amazing, but I wasn't as engaged by the humor from it. My expectations may have been too high.

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  4. I have this film in my watchlist for 2015 as I plan to watch more films of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd as I've already gone through the United Artists period of Chaplin.

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    1. That's great. You can't go wrong with either Keaton or Lloyd, from what I've seen so far.

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  5. Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!
    The contemporary cinema has a lot of Buster Keaton!
    Great post!

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    1. No problem! Thanks for stopping by!

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  6. I haven't seen much of either's work, just a couple of their biggest such as the General, Modern Times, and the Gold Rush. From my little experience, they both use slapstick, though I believe Chaplin used more innovative effects while Keaton used planning and timing (and luck), but it is always amazing to see how much these works still incorporate elements that are still used today.

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    1. It's tough to compare them because they brought such different styles to the comedy. I admire both for different reasons, though I'm a lot more familiar with Chaplin. I really need to dig a lot further into Keaton's work.

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