Directed by: Buster Keaton.
Written by: Jean C. Havez & Joseph A. Mitchell and Clyde Bruckman.
Starring: Buster Keaton (Projectionist / Sherlock, Jr.), Kathryn McGuire (The Girl), Joe Keaton (The Girl's Father / Man on Film Screen), Erwin Connelly (The Hired Man / The Butler), Ward Crane (The Local Sheik / The Villain).
When I did my “If I Had a Ballot for the Sight & Sound Best Films of All Time Survey” post back in 2012, I included Sherlock Jr. in my top 10. I just as easily could have picked The General of Our Hospitality, but I went with Sherlock Jr. – and two years later, I’m still okay with that decision. On the Blu Ray edition of the film, there is a documentary where the narrator points out that Sherlock Jr. was the least successful of all of Keaton’s features in terms of box office – and yet it now ranks with cinephiles as one of his best. Why, she asks? It doesn’t have the daring of The General or Steamboat Bill Jr. Or the majesty of Our Hospitality. Or the gags of Seven Chances. Or the love story of The Cameraman. So why does Sherlock Jr. – which barely qualifies as a feature at 45 minutes – ranks as one of Keaton’s best – and for some, like me, his best ever? Simple – Sherlock Jr. is first of all a technical masterpiece – even in the making of documentary they struggle to explain precisely how Keaton pulled everything he did off (they explain a lot, but there are some conflicts, which they point out). It is also, first and foremost, a film about film – about movies and the effect they can have on an audience – something Keaton addressed earlier than many others, and still probably better than anyone who came after. Oh – and it’s hilarious from start to finish.
In the film, Keaton stars a Projectionist at a small town movie theater – who dreams of becoming a detective. We see him reading a book aptly titled “How to Be a Detective” before his boss tells him to get back to work (and, in the film’s first of many illusions, he removes his fake mustache). Keaton is in love with Kathryn McGuire – and wants to buy her a fancy box of chocolates – but only has $3 and needs $4 for the box he wants. As he cleans up the debris from the theater, he finds a dollar – and his luck seems to have changed – then along comes a young woman who tells him she lost a dollar – and he sadly hands it over. Then an old woman comes by and says she lost a dollar – and he gives her one out of his own pocket. Than a man comes along, and finds a stack of money in the pile of garbage. Poor Buster – he cannot catch a break. He ends up buying some chocolate – and changing the price tag on it, so it says $4 instead of $1. He brings it, along with the small engagement ring he has purchased, and gives it McGuire. Unfortunately, he’s not the only one with his eyes of McGuire – Ward Crane as The Local Shiek – also shows up – and first he steals the girls’ father’s watch – and then sets Keaton up to take the fall. Dejected – Keaton returns to his job at the movie theater, where he drifts off to sleep – and soon will imagine himself inside the movie he sees on the screen – the characters changing into the one in his life.
What follows is one of the greatest sequences in film history. After Keaton enters the movie (a theatrical effect, as Keaton makes a stage look like a movie screen, so he can enter – and be thrown out of it) he finds himself in an every changing backdrop of different scenery. He thinks he’s about to sit on a bench, but then the scene changes, and he’s on his ass. He’s in the forest one minute, surrounded by lions the next – about to jump into the water, and then ends up in a snowbank. True, one could complain that no movie in history would have those scene changes – but does it really matter? What Keaton does in this scene is brilliant – both comedic, as he was a peerless physical comedian, but also technically – what he had to do to get those scenes changes to merge naturally was a marvel of editing and technical camera work.
There are other great scenes in the movie within the movie – a pool game, where he’s been sabotaged by an exploding ball, which he manages to thwart is another bit of genius comedy. Before he enters the movie, there is also a wonderful “chase” sequence – where Keaton shadows his man – Crane – closely as the two walk down the street – and ends with Keaton on the roof of a train, and needing to get out (probably the most dangerous stunt in the film involving him with a water tower here).
My favorite sequence though – aside from the ever changing backdrop – is the final one in the film – which I think is also what raises the film above everything else Keaton has done. While Keaton has dreamed himself a great detective in the film within the film, McGuire has actually proven to be the greater detective in real life – and is able to clear his name. She arrives at his work to tell him the good news – and Keaton starts to take cues from the people onscreen in the movie he’s watching. He sweetalks her when the man on the screen does the same to his girl, holds her when he does, kisses her when he does – and then – in one of my favorite endings ever – the movie within the movie fades to black, and when it fades back in, the onscreen couple have babies in their arms. Keaton looks on in bewilderment – how did they get those babies? No movie in 1924 is going to show him that.
Sherlock Jr. is a masterpiece – plain and simple. It shows how people project themselves – in this case literally – into the movies they see, and how they model their behavior after what they see. It shows the power movies can have over an audience – and does it in the most ingeniously simple and humorous way imaginable. It has inspired countless directors – look no further than this to see the roots of Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) – or at times the entire oeuvre of Wes Anderson (I bet many of his characters have owned that How to Be a Detective Book). It is a dazzling technical achievement as well. But above all, it’s funny. Hilarious even. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen this film –countless, including a few times in the last month, and it never fails to win me over. This is Keaton – and movie comedy – at its best.