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Sherlock, Jr. (1924) was the third feature-length film Buster Keaton made as an independent after switching to the longer format following a series of brilliant 2-reelers in the early 1920s. Coming after the nuanced and leisurely Our Hospitality (1923), Sherlock, Jr. is by comparison a non-stop collection of gags and stunts, with enough innovation and energy for two features. It is one of Keaton's best-loved films, equally embraced by long-time aficionados as well as newcomers to silent comedy. In fact, modern audiences easily take to the fast pace and complex film-within-a-film motif. Set mostly in a dream, Pauline Kael called it "a piece of native American surrealism."
Buster is the projectionist and janitor of a small-town movie theatre. The projectionist's real ambition is to become a master detective. He would also like to win the heart of a local girl (Kathryn McGuire), though he is short of funds and must also compete with a conniving rival suitor. The scoundrel (Ward Crane) steals a pocket watch from the girl's father (Joe Keaton) and pawns it to buy the girl a box of chocolates - a crime for which he frames our hero. Ejected from the house, the projectionist takes a nap while at work in the projection booth. Here a "dream Buster" emerges and enters the movie screen, into a melodrama called Hearts and Pearls or The Lounge Lizard's Lost Love. Being played out in the movie is a variation of the same love-triangle scenario, and in this one our hero endeavors, as the great detective Sherlock, Jr., to unravel the thievery and bring the scoundrel to justice.
As in his 1921 short The Playhouse, in Sherlock, Jr. Keaton is able to stage outlandish, surreal gags within the framework of a dream. The scene in which Keaton brings his projectionist character into the movie onscreen, in transition to the movie-within-a-movie, is justly famous as a clever examination of the film medium itself - of film cutting techniques applied to audience expectations. In this brilliant sequence our hero, not yet fully assimilated within the movie he is attempting to enter, finds himself shuttled between several locations at the whim of the already-edited film. As he dives off a rock surrounded by ocean currents, for example, the film scene cuts and he disappears into a snow bank, legs sticking straight up. The sequence was devised by Keaton and his photographer Elgin Lessley using surveying instruments to keep both subject and shifting backgrounds in alignment.
Keaton dips into his knowledge of vaudeville stunts for some of the wildest gags in Sherlock, Jr., which are played out in real time with no camera tricks. Interestingly, Buster reveals the workings of one of the stunts with the aid of a breakaway set - we see Buster take a running leap inside a room and go through a window propped open by the hoop containing a change of costume. The other vaudeville gag, in which Buster dives through a peddler woman's stomach and disappears, is played out to fool both the viewer and the crooks in the movie - the actual workings of the trick are not shown.
The driverless motorcycle chase which comprises the climax of the film is a rip-roaring wonder. Keaton performed his own stunts, as usual, and he also doubled for the driver who falls off the cycle at the start of the sequence. As John Bengtson points out in his book Silent Echoes, two shots involving close calls were aided by photographic tricks. In one scene the safe passage of the cycle over a missing section of bridge is only possible with the aid of two passing trucks. This shot was achieved with the help of a horizontally split screen. Later in the sequence Buster seems to narrowly miss an oncoming train at a crossing - only repeated viewing reveals that the shot was safely filmed backwards.
Keaton sustained one of his few movie-related injuries while shooting another scene in Sherlock, Jr., though the damage wasn't immediately apparent. In the shot, Buster is running atop the boxcars of a moving train. As the end of the train draws near, he effortlessly reaches for the draw rope of a waterspout. The train disappears beneath his feet, but Keaton is apparently safe, as he starts to slowly float to the ground on the slow-moving counter-weight of the waterspout. The gag, however, is that he gets doused by water as the spout opens. The force of the water was greater than expected, and knocked his head onto a rail. He got up and finished the scene, but complained of headaches for days. Many years later, a routine exam with X-rays revealed that he had actually fractured his neck in the incident.
Keaton spent five months on Sherlock, Jr. , and took the film out for three audience previews, cutting it further after each. Finally, he cut it down to 5 reels (about 44 minutes) - short for a feature. As a result, there is not a wasted moment and the film is one of Keaton's fastest and funniest. Even so, Sherlock, Jr. didn't surpass his first independent feature, Three Ages (1923), at the box office and grossed $448,000, almost the same amount as the latter. His next movie, The Navigator (1924), however, would prove to be the most financially successful of his silent films.
Director: Buster Keaton
Producer: Joseph M. Schenck
Writers: Clyde Bruckman, Jean Havez, Joe Mitchell
Cinematography: Byron Houck, Elgin Lessley
Art Direction: Fred Gabourie
Cast: Buster Keaton (Projectionist/ Sherlock, Jr.), Kathryn McGuire (The Girl), Joe Keaton (Her Father), Erwin Connelly (Butler), Ward Crane (The Sheik), Ford West (Manager/ Gillette).
by John M. Miller