“Sherlock Jr.” - Buster Keaton (1924)

Buster Keaton was, along with Charlie Chaplin, certainly one of the master auteurs of the silent film.  Indeed legendary film theorist Andrew Sarris included Keaton in his “pantheon” of greatest American directors, both silent and sound [1].  And when Sarris compared Keaton to Chaplin, he had this to say [2]:
“[Compared to Chaplin,] Keaton is now generally acknowledged as the superior director and inventor of visual forms.  There are those who would go further and claim Keaton as pure cinema as opposed to Chaplin’s essentially theatrical cinema.”
A signal ingenious creation of Keaton was his own screen persona: a modest, earnest, and innocent young man who never gives up, even in the face of the most daunting circumstances.  To highlight the contrast between his lone, unsupported innocence and the frighteningly hostile forces around him, Keaton subjected his screen character to an endless succession of pratfalls (he performed all his own, incredibly dangerous, stunts), which he had learned how to withstand as a child vaudeville stage performer.  These epic confrontations invariably had a magical attraction for his screen audiences.  From a larger perspective in fact, his survival in these tales seemed to represent a light-hearted cinematic embodiment of the optimistic American Dream [3].

One of Keaton’s most popular films was his early feature, Sherlock Jr. (1924), which prolific film critic Jeffrey Anderson has gone so far as to say is the greatest film ever made [4]. Like many of Keaton’s top films, it starts off with a string of more or less conventional slapstick sight gags and then gradually moves in to an increasingly dizzying and surreal comic mania.  It is this frenzied second stage of Keaton’s films that single his work out as ingenious creations.  In addition, Sherlock Jr.’s narrative has two other notable features:
  • Keaton tells his tale in a brisk 45 minutes.
  • The film explores the very nature of the film medium and how it relates to our conscious experience.
It is this latter point that intrigues many viewers.  Film was still a relatively new medium of expression in 1924, and filmmakers were still working out what was natural for film expression.  In particular, the editing cut, particularly the cut on action, was still a film narrative technique that had to be used with caution.

The story of Sherlock Jr. concerns a shy young man who works as a projectionist in a local cinema and who also dreams of being a detective.  He spends his spare time reading his instruction manual, How to be a Detective.  Over the course of the story’s several phases, the film moves increasingly into a Keatonian maelstrom of hysteria.

1.  The Young Projectionist Courts His Girl

This first section of the film shows the young projectionist (the “Boy”, played by Buster Keaton)  studying his detective book and then attempting to give the girl he likes (the “Girl”, Kathryn McGuire) a box of chocolates.  The problem is that he doesn’t have the money to buy the expensive box that he wants, and there are some gags here showing him trying to scrounge up the extra dollar he needs.  He finally buys the cheaper box and goes over to the Girl’s house and shyly gives it to her. 

Also at this time, his romantic competitor, the “Sheik” (Ward Crane), wants to buy the expensive chocolate box for the girl, too.  (Although the term “sheik” in the old days could mean a man who is romantically irresistible to women, it is not so commonly used now, so I will refer to him as the “Cad”.)  The Cad doesn’t have the money for the expensive chocolate, either.  So he goes to the Girl’s house, steals her father’s (Joe Keaton, Buster’s father) pocket watch, which he then pawns in order to purchase the expensive chocolate and give it to her.  He then manages to frame the Boy for the pocket-watch theft, which causes the Girl’s father to banish the Boy from their home.

The Boy, in ludicrously literal attempts to follow his detective manual’s instructions, then tries  to shadow the Cad in order to expose him of the crime.  There is an amazing scene here when the Boy is locked inside of a freight car and manages to get out as the train is pulling away by holding onto a water-tower spout.  When the spout is lowered by the Boy’s weight, a massive torrent of water comes out of the water tower, drenching the Boy. The force of this water apparently caught Keaton by surprise, and he fractured a neck vertebra and suffered a concussion while filming this scene.  This was one of the many times in Keaton’s career that he barely survived the screen stunts that he committed himself to [3].

Finally, one-third of the way into the film, the disconsolate Boy gives up and returns to work as a projectionist.  Up to this point what has been shown has been fairly conventional silent comedy stuff; but now things start to get interesting.

2.  The Dream Begins
In his projection booth, the Boy starts up a film and then begins to snooze and falls into a dream.  In his dream, the Boy is still in the projection booth, but when he looks at the film being shown, he sees that the main characters are the Cad and the Girl.  So he approaches the screen and manages to magically enter into the action being shown. 

But he has only part way entered into this new narrative level. We see the theater audience and the screen, with the Boy taking part in the action shown onscreen. There is now a spectacular series of cuts showing the background environment suddenly changing while the continuing  presence of the Boy is unchanged from shot to shot.  The Boy suddenly finds himself in new, unexpected surroundings every few seconds. 

Finally the camera zooms in, and we enter fully into the narrative world of the film being shown.  In this film-within-a-film, an expensive pearl necklace has been stolen by the Cad.  The rich owner of the necklace (Joe Keaton again) summons the world’s greatest detective, the super-confidant Sherlock Jr. (Buster Keaton) to crack the case.  When Buster Keaton appears as Sherlock Jr., the Boy is now fully immersed in the new narrative.  The Cad and his accomplice, the rich man’s butler, now engage in a series of attempts to kill Sherlock Jr.  But they all come to nothing, primarily due to sheer happenstance, as shown in a set of sight gags,.

3.  Surreal Chases
The film now enters into its surreal progression, as Sherlock Jr. starts following the Cad to his gang hideout.  There are more spectacular stunts here, including one showing Sherlock Jr. escaping from the gang by leaping through a window and into a disguise costume all in one motion.  On another occasion he escapes from the gang by leaping into a box held by his loyal assistant and mysteriously disappearing.

Finally we come to the most spectacular chase, which involves Sherlock Jr. riding on the handlebars of a motorcycle being driven by his assistant.  After a pothole throws off the driver, Sherlock is shown riding on the handlebars of a driverless motorcycle as it careens through city traffic.

There are more chase scenes, as Sherlock Jr. rescues the Girl from the gang’s remote hideout and gets away from their pursuers.  After their car plunges into a lake, they end up swimming in the water, as the Boy finally wakes up from his dream.

4.  Reunion with the Girl

The Girl comes to the cinema projection booth and quietly informs the Boy that she has solved the crime of the stolen pocket watch, herself, and established his innocence.  She had gone to the pawnshop and determined that it was the Cad who had stolen the watch and pawned it.

Now is the time for them to kiss and make up, but the Boy is too shy and innocent about what to do.  So he peers through his projection booth at the cinema screen and takes cues from the film being shown in order to learn how to embrace and kiss a girl.  But after their kiss, he peers again at the screen and sees that the projected film has made a forward time-transition cut and left out a few things he may need to know.

There are several interesting aspects of film in Sherlock Jr.  One concerns the undeniable fact that most of us have taken cues concerning how to behave romantically towards the opposite sex by observing our role models in films.  Of course these cues were always available in literary fiction and stage plays, but the intimacy afforded by film enabled these gestures to be presented on more subtle levels.  The Boy in Sherlock Jr. exaggerates things by attempting to follow his instructions too literally, but the imitative possibilities offered by film were probably relatively new in the early 1920s and a subject of interest.

But the progression of film towards more emotionally expressive intimacy was a gradual process. And Keaton’s mise-en-scene is displayed mostly in long shots and extreme long shots that are only occasionally intercut with medium shots and medium closeups.  Over-the-shoulder shots affording more intimacy on the part of the camera as “invisible witness” were less common in those days.  And Keaton’s constant, unflappable gaze ensured that the viewer did not have to regularly monitor his facial expressions in order to discern any emotive subtleties.

Nevertheless, Keaton’s allusion to film as an example and an agent of dreams – in fact as a dream machine – is telling.  And those images of him riding alone on the motorcycle’s handlebars and careening headlong towards a likely disastrous fate are the most memorable moments of Sherlock Jr.  As film scholar Michael Goodwin remarked [5],
“The famous image of Keaton balancing on the handlebars of a riderless motorcycle, perfectly poised in a world of trouble, could be the central metaphor for his entire filmic career.”

  1. Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968, E. P. Dutton & Co. (1968).
  2. Ibid., p. 62.
  3. Roger Ebert, “The Films of Buster Keaton”, RogerEbert.com, (10 November 2002).   
  4. Jeffrey M. Anderson, “Super Snoop”, Combustible Celluloid, (n.d.).   
  5. Michael Goodwin, “Passing Through the Equal Sign: Fractal Mathematics in Sherlock Jr.”,  from Buster Keaton’s ‘Sherlock Jr.’, edited by Andrew Horton, Cambridge U Press (1997), quoted in Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson (eds.), “Buster Keaton Sherlock Jr. and Steamboat Bill Jr. 1928”, Goldenrod Handouts, Buffalo Film Seminars, (IX:), The Center for Studies in American Culture, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY (31 August 2004).

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