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The Fifth Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon: Sherlock Jr(1924)

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For the fifth year running, Lea at Silent-ology is hosting her annual blogathon dedicated to our beloved stone-faced comedian, Buster Keaton. Be sure to visit her site to read all of the entries, I can’t wait to read them all myself. 

I’m writing about Sherlock Jr, which is one of Buster Keaton’s greatest film achievements, as both an actor, and also as a film director.  The film only lasts for 45 minutes, and yet it somehow manages to be more stunning, more inventive, and much more memorable than many other films which last hours longer than this one does.  

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Buster wants to know how to be a detective. Screenshot by me.

Sherlock Jr is a film that shows just what can be achieved on screen by those who make films. It contains sequences and camera tricks that had audiences and fellow filmmakers of the time eager to know how those things were achieved. Watching this film in 2019 has me feeling the exact same way. I like to think that Buster would be proud to know that his stunts, camera tricks, and comedy are still wowing audiences all these decades later.

                      A memorable moment where Sherlock Jr opens a safe and it opens into a street. Screenshot by me.  

This film contains some of Buster’s funniest moments on screen. I especially love the banana gag, which sees Buster setting a banana gag up to make the projectionist’s rival slip, but then Buster falls victim to it himself instead. This slipping gag never fails to make me giggle, and I really love how the gag plays with our expectations about who will slip. I also love the scene where our hero crashes through a window, slides along a table on his back, and kicks the guy sitting at the end of the table straight out the other side of the wooden building. 🙂 The looking for a dollar sequence is hilarious too. 

There’s also a wide range of very impressive stunts in this film. The sequence where he is on his runaway motorbike is a real highlight. I also love the scene in the sinking car. Another sequence,where Buster is hit by a large amount of water on the train tracks, resulted in Buster falling and unknowingly fracturing his neck. He didn’t find out about the injury until many years later when he was examined by a doctor who then discovered the injury. 

                               Buster and his runaway motorbike narrowly avoid a train. Screenshots by me. 

The film also features some truly amazing camera trickery and shots. There are several stunts/camera tricks in this that are so remarkable and flawlessly put together, that I am still scratching my head trying to figure out exactly how they were so seamlessly achieved and put together on film.

There is one trick in particular in this that had me rewinding the DVD several times when I first saw it trying to work out how it was even possible. The scene I’m referring to is the one where Buster leaps into a suitcase held by another person and disappears. This shot was achieved by using an old vaudeville trick which Buster’s dad, Joe Keaton, had apparently invented during his days on stage. There was a trap door behind the suitcase and the actor holding the case lay horizontally with some long clothes hiding the fact that there is no body there. It is such an amazing trick and the scene never fails to have me open mouthed and pointing at the TV trying to figure out how such a thing is even possible. 

The film first began life in 1923, under the working title of The Misfit. The title was later changed to Sherlock Jr, and the film was released in April of 1924. Buster had initially hired his close friend Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle to help him co- direct the film. Roscoe had been Buster’s friend and co-star for many years, and the pair had made a number of short films together.

Roscoe had been falsely accused of the rape and manslaughter of the actress Virginia Rappe in 1921.  After three trials Roscoe was exonerated of the crime, but sadly by that time he had become something of a broken man. Buster stood by his friend throughout the scandal and trials, and he also tried to offer him work on his films. Apparently Roscoe was very difficult on the set of Sherlock Jr, which then led Buster to completely take over directing duties. It is unclear which footage(if any)in the film is the work of Roscoe Arbuckle. Roscoe would finally get to direct some films again under the name of William Goodrich, he died in 1933. 

Upon its release Sherlock Jr would unfortunately become one of the least popular films that Buster had made so far. The film also did very poorly at the box office. It may not have been widely appreciated and loved at the time it was released, but in recent decades it has become one of the most beloved and admired of any of Buster’s films.

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Out for a drive, or is it a boat ride? Screenshot by me.

I think the film works as well as it does not only because of the stunt work and visuals, but also because it is at heart a film about an unlucky, ordinary guy, who we in the audience just want to be happy.

Buster’s performance in this film is also a huge part of its charm in my opinion. Buster’s performance in this is one that I love a great deal. Buster makes his character a really sweet, shy and down on his luck guy; we root for him, we like him, and we feel sorry for him as he suffers injustice and heartbreak. When Buster becomes the detective later in the film his performance changes. I really like how Buster becomes a suave man of confidence when he is in the film within the film.

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A sweet moment between our awkward hero and his lady love. Screenshot by me.

Buster Keaton plays a gentle and shy cinema projectionist/cinema cleaner. He is in love with a girl(Kathryn McGuire)who is from a well off family. He also yearns to be a professional detective. The projectionist has a serious rival (Ward Crane)for the heart of his one true love.

The rival steals the watch of the girl’s father(played by Buster’s dad, Joe Keaton) pawns it at a local shop, and then plants evidence on our poor hero to make out that he is the thief. The father banishes our hero, but the girl doesn’t believe his guilt and she sets out to prove his innocence. 

                                    The leaving the body scene. Screenshot by me. 

One night, while running a mystery film at the cinema, our hero falls asleep. We next see his soul come out of his body (a remarkable sequence achieved by using double exposure) and walk off into the big screen to become a part of the film. In his dreams our hero now transforms into the confident and famous detective Sherlock Jr. The actors playing the girlfriend and the rival replace the actors of the film our hero has entered.

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Sherlock Jr is on the case. Screenshot by me.

What I love about the dream/film within a film scene is how random and mixed up it all, just as dreams are while we are experiencing them.  Once Buster’s film dream gets underway we then have a series of stunts and sight gags to enjoy. Buster somehow controls a runaway motorbike by sitting on the handlebars and driving through heavy traffic. Buster jumps through things, off of things, and into things. Buster also narrowly avoids getting hit by a train in a scene that was apparently shot in reverse, but which doesn’t look like it to me. The film is non-stop action once Buster enters the film within the film. 

I also love that the happy ending of the film basically shows us the projectionist gaining tips from the movies on how to be romantic. The ending also shows us that some things can’t be learnt from films, instead they must be discovered for ourselves off screen in reality. The projectionist has adventures and happiness of his own waiting just around the corner in reality. 

The film is so much fun. I do wish that it had been a bit longer though. I also wanted some more scenes at the beginning between the projectionist and his girlfriend. What is present in the film is very good though.

This is a film which lets us all just sit back and marvel at what we are watching. In my opinion this film stands as a tribute to film making. It also stands as a tribute to the magic of the cinema, and to the timeless appeal of Buster Keaton. I highly recommend this film to anyone who hasn’t seen it. 

What do you think of this film?

 

 

 

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25 thoughts on “The Fifth Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon: Sherlock Jr(1924)”

  1. I haven’t seen SHERLOCK JR in many years, but I remember it as one of his best….and thanks for the info about Fatty Arbuckle. I hadn’t realized that he was involved with this film and continued to direct thereafter.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. If you have a source for the fact that Joe Keaton invented the suitcase trick, please let me know. Otherwise, I believe that’s incorrect — it’s just something BK picked up in his vaudeville years.

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    1. Hi there. On the audio commentary of the Blu-ray of this film in the Masters of Cinema Buster Keaton boxset, the guy doing the commentary said that Buster said that trick/illusion was his dad’s. He also says that it used to be performed on stage.

      There is also mention of this trick/illusion on the wikipedia page for Sherlock Jr, where it mentions that Buster himself said that it was invented by his dad. The source on the wikipedia page for that comment is listed as being Buster Keaton: Cut To The Chase by Marion Meade, page 146.

      I don’t know whether Joe Keaton actually did invent it or not, but it seems that Buster said that he did, which is why I wrote that it was APPARENTLY the invention of Joe Keaton in my review.

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  3. SHERLOCK JR. is such a classic. I remember discussing with Buster fans online which film would be considered his masterpiece if THE GENERAL didn’t exist. SHERLOCK won hands down!

    Some of my favorite scenes are the dollar bill scene (I love how Buster asks the gal to “describe” the bill–“well, it’s rectangular, there’s an eagle on it…” 😀 ) and that brilliant billiards scene. The amount of the practice he had to do to make those shots–staggering!!

    Thanks for contributing this charming post to the blogathon, Maddy!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great movie, great essay. The first time a person who didn’t know silent movies saw the motorcycle scene, he said “CGI.” I had to persuade him that they didn’t have CGI in 1923.

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  5. Nice review! I too enjoyed the “going through the wall” gag and wondered how it was made. With your description I can picture it a little easier now, though its no less magical.

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