Loved The Artist? Why not take a trip back to when Buster Keaton ruled and try one of his finest, Sherlock Jr.?
The recent critical and commercial success of mute marvel The Artist gives us ample excuse to revisit one of silent star Buster Keaton’s greatest achievements, his 1924 miniature masterpiece, Sherlock Jr. As if any excuse was needed.
A miracle, even in an age seemingly inured to movie magic, Sherlock Jr. is notable for a series of scintillating, near-inexplicable stunts, Keaton’s characteristically dexterous and deadpan performance, as well as for its fat-free rattling-good storytelling and witty intertitles.
Like Charlie Chaplin, Joseph Frank ‘Buster’ Keaton (nickname: ‘The Great Stone Face’) was a little guy whose achievements were enormous. Sherlock Jr. – directed by and starring Keaton – has a running time of just 44 minutes but it’s as close to perfection at filmmaking gets. Perfection, in this case, means crazy, daring and breakneck (literally, but more of that later) and, of course, divinely silly.
When we first meet our protagonist – the poverty-stricken projectionist (Keaton) – he’s reading from a book entitled ‘How to be a Detective’. ‘Dressed’ in what turns out to be a fake moustache, he’s assuming a character as he learns his craft. Unfortunately his education is cut cruelly short when he is admonished for idleness and commanded by his employer: ‘before you clean up any mysteries – clean up this theatre.’
The plot hares along and, in no time at all, our hero has been framed for the theft of a pocket watch by a dastardly rival (Ward Crane) and his reputation is ruined in the eyes of his sweetheart (Kathryn McGuire). When he returns to the cinema he daydreams himself onto the screen and into a more debonair mystery – ‘Hearts and Pearls’ – assuming the more auspicious guise of the ‘world’s greatest detective’, Sherlock Jr. Atta boy Buster.
A number of sequences are certain to astonish. Keaton’s dream-self stepping into the film he’s projecting, and being confounded by the action therein, is an effect that could hardly be bettered now. When he initially jumps onto the screen he is hurled unceremoniously out. He’s then repeatedly floored as the film cuts between a series of locations; each time he accustoms himself to his new environment he is confounded once more. One moment he’s at the edge of a cliff and the next amidst lions.
In this sequence, as with so many here, Keaton shows himself to be both a great clown and an amazing innovator. Apparently it was two decades before he revealed how he achieved the effect: he precisely measured the distance between him and the camera, developed the last frame from the previous shot, placed this inside the viewfinder and, with the assistance of his cameraman, moved himself into the complementary position. Quite wonderfully, the reveal gives greater credit to Buster’s ingeniousness and physical discipline rather than to the technology used.
Keaton had such a unique shtick, with his chameleon-like eyes, pallid skin, ruler straight face, and awesome limberness. The things we see him do are tremendously brave and brilliantly strange: watch him jump through a window and into a (very carefully positioned) old lady disguise! See him hurtle here and there on the handlebars of an unmanned motorbike, scramble across the length of a moving train and swing from the gushing pipe of a water tower!
It was during the water tower stunt that Keaton sustained a severe neck injury. And he didn’t even realise! That this man of apparently slight and almost sickly demeanour was actually tremendously hardy is one of the most wonderful things about Keaton, who was ever the contradiction (he was a sad-faced clown after all). It was only years later, when his neck had healed, that the old injury was discovered by a doctor.
Sherlock Jr. is the clear inspiration for Woody Allen’s 1985 The Purple Rose of Cairo where Jeff Daniels’ fictional adventurer steps off the silver screen to romance downtrodden dame Mia Farrow. Fans of that film simply must see where the germ began.
With the joys of silent film once again being expounded – if you haven’t already (or even if you have) – why not give Sherlock Jr. a close inspection? Silent cinema Keaton-style is universal, timeless and a rollicking good wheeze. His sense of the surreal and flair for mind-blowing stunts in particular keeps things fresh. And, what is it that they say? It’s the quiet ones you’ve got to watch. Damn straight it is.
Watch Sherlock Jr. in its entirety below.