Sherlock Jr is rightly considered as one of the many great films of Buster Keaton’s career. The movie introduces many technical innovations and complex stunts which run side by side the screen comedian’s usual deadpan humour and sight gags to create one of his and the era’s best. A lowly movie theatre projectionist (Keaton) has two dreams in life. He wants to be a detective and wants to snare the love of his life. After being framed by a love rival for a burglary at the girl’s house he is banished, told never to return. His attempts to solve the crime and clear his name come to a dead end so he returns to the cinema where he falls asleep behind the projector. Here, the man literally splits in two (using double exposure) and the dream version of Sherlock Jr enters the movie screen where he has much more success at solving crimes and attracting the attention of beautiful women.
Few films from the era (or any era) display as much inventiveness or technical nouse as Sherlock Jr. Working at a time before many of the cinematic inventions that we take for granted today, including sound of course, Keaton here constructs a beautifully observed comedy which combines the detective genre with an introspective study of his medium while using romance as a framing device. The movie is, at just forty-four minutes, much shorter than most of his features, straddling somewhere between short and feature but barely a second of screen time is wasted with jokes coming thick and fast. If comedy ever does run dry, the eyes are dazzled with a technical marvel or bone crunching stunt which ninety years on, will still make the audience wince.
There are so many clever ideas and scenes crammed in to the forty-four minute run time that it’s easy to overlook them. In one of the early scenes our hero consults his ‘How to be a Detective’ handbook which clearly states that you should ‘Shadow your suspects closely’. What follows is a brilliantly choreographed and wonderfully executed scene in which Buster follows mere inches behind his lead suspect, mirroring his movement to near precision. When the man stops, Buster stops, the man picks up a cigarette, Buster follows suit, catching it when the man throws it away, matching him puff for puff. It looks like the sort of scene which would take weeks of preparation but knowing Buster Keaton, he probably just came up with the idea the week before and got it in a take or two. Another example of the inventiveness of Keaton and the film comes towards the climax. Speeding through country lanes in a car, Buster spots he is about to drive into a lake. He slams on the breaks and the entire chassis comes to a halt with the body work, complete with passengers shooting into the lake. The car then becomes a boat with Keaton using the retractable roof as a makeshift sail.
There is one gag which I couldn’t quite get my head around. The joke occurs when Keaton is playing pool. The film’s villain has replaced the number 15 ball with an identical copy that contains a bomb. When the ball is struck, a huge explosion will kill our hero. As Keaton breaks, the villain and his accomplice run for cover but despite the balls being knocked all over the table, the 15 ball stays put. Keaton then clears the whole table, resorting to seemingly impossible trick shots without ever striking the 15 ball. Even with clever cutting I still don’t know how he managed to do this. It’s as though the ball has an invisible force field around it which protects it from ever being touched. Whether completed with skill, persistence or trickery, it’s a genius scene.
As well as clever sight gags, the film is typical for its smart and dangerous stunts. One stand out is a prolonged motorbike ride. Keaton, sat atop the bike’s handlebars unwittingly loses his driver and travels several miles through heavy traffic without realising. To see him weave about through the busy streets is a joy for the eyes. The end of this sequence also features an early example of rear projection but the bulk of the scene is done for real. The movie is famous for being the movie in which the star broke his neck. When most people break their neck, they might take the rest of the day off but Buster Keaton just carried on with the scene and didn’t actually realise for several years, during a routing medical exam, that his neck was in fact broken. It wasn’t even a small break (if that’s possible) but it was a major fracture. Keaton had severe migraines for days following the accident but carried on regardless. You can actually see the moment in the film when Keaton is flattened by a jet of water, released from a railway water storage tank.
For me the film is most notable for its almost surrealist ‘film within a film’. When the real life projectionist falls asleep his subconscious awakens and walks out of the projection booth and into the auditorium. For a start it’s really nice to witness the projection and screening process of an early film but then things get really good. Keaton walks towards the screen and then steps into it, becoming part of the film within the film. The characters in the film change from actors to the ‘real’ people in the projectionist’s life. He then adopts the moniker of Sherlock Jr, a crime crushing criminologist who solves mysteries and wins his love’s heart. A fantastic sequence inside this device occurs when the backdrop on the cinema screen changes rapidly. Keaton finds himself standing outside a house before being on a busy road, on a mountain top, inside a lion cage and on a railway line. For the narrative of the film within a film this doesn’t make a lot of sense but from a visual and technical standpoint it’s breathtaking. To accomplish the scene, Keaton’s cameraman had to use surveyor’s equipment to accurately measure the actor’s precise distance from the camera as well as bodily position. It’s an incredible piece or artistic craftsmanship.
To be perfectly honest the plot of Sherlock Jr isn’t always great and it is far from his funniest film but the sheer audacity in creating some of the stunts and visuals more than make up for anything other areas may lack. Although not great, the plot is not without its charms and it ends up as a fairly conventional love story. Keaton again reverts to the movies for inspiration in his closing scene when the shy projectionist once again mirrors the actions of another, this time copying the mannerisms and actions of the real on-screen lothario whom he can see from his projection booth. His subtle glances to the screen are sweet and his girl seems to appreciate the effort. It’s a wonderful, romantic end to a highly inventive screen classic.
- There is some disagreement as to who directed this picture. Keaton hoped that his friend Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle would come on board as co-director following the scandal that ended his on screen career but whether he did or not has been lost to history.
- The pool sequence took five days to shoot and Keaton had practised for four months with a trick shot expert. The five days worth of footage was edited as though to seem like just one game.
- Buster Keaton's father Joe appears on screen with his son in one of his few movie appearances. The older Keaton was initially very sceptical of the moving picture and felt that his son's career lay on the stage where it had begun.