Arts & Events

Moving Pictures: Buster Keaton’s ‘Sherlock Jr.’: Brilliant Film Comedy, Criticism

By Justin DeFreitas
Thursday December 10, 2009 - 09:39:00 AM
Buster Keaton prepares to enter the movie screen in Sherlock Jr.
Buster Keaton prepares to enter the movie screen in Sherlock Jr.

If The General (1927), Buster Keaton’s best-known work, shows the great comedian’s more classical side, with its steady narrative arc and character-driven gags subordinated to plot, Sherlock Jr. (1924) gives us the modernist Keaton, acutely award of cinema as a construct, of the role of fantasy in the movies, and of the curious nature of three-dimensional reality as represented in a two-dimensional medium.  

It is a film in which Keaton essentially steps aside for a moment and stands with his audience, examining film itself before taking us by the hand and leading us through the looking glass of the screen. Keaton’s movie is, as Walter Kerr said, “simultaneously brilliant film comedy and brilliant film criticism.” 

Sherlock Jr. shows at 7 p.m. this Saturday at the Castro Theater as part of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s annual winter event. The day also includes screenings of Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness at 11:30 a.m.; the U.S. premiere of the original, uncut version of Abel Gance’s J’accuse at 2 p.m.; and at 9:15 p.m., West of Zanzibar, one of several collaborations between the great Lon Chaney and director Tod Browning, best known today as the man who gave us Freaks. 

Sherlock Jr. opens with Buster as a movie theater projectionist who dreams of being a great detective. But when a rival frames Buster for stealing a watch from his best girl’s father, Buster is unable to unravel the crime to prove his innocence. He returns to the movie theater, dejected and forlorn, and after setting the reels in motion for a movie called Hearts and Pearls, he falls asleep.  

Thus far the film retains the classical form of the great silent comedies, and though he closes the film in a conventional manner as well, it is at this point that Keaton jumps the rails and turns Sherlock Jr. into one of the most inventive and modernist of silent films, a comedic rumination on the nature of the medium.  

  As Buster falls asleep, we enter his dreams as a series of dissolves show the characters on the screen in Hearts and Pearls transforming into the people of Buster’s own melodrama—his rival, his girl, her father. Then a meticulous double-exposure shows us a ghostly Buster leaving the body of the real Buster and descending to the theater where he vaults onto the stage and into the screen only to be firmly ejected by his rival.  

So he tries another tack and approaches the screen from the side. But the film plays tricks with him, cutting quickly from one scene to another, leaving Buster sitting in the middle of traffic, now stranded in the ocean, now surrounded by lions, now upside down in a snow bank. He has left the real world for the reel world and has quickly found himself lost in the unique, fragmented language of film. 

Throughout the sequence, the figure of Buster remains constant as the scene shifts behind him. It was not only a feat of imagination, it was a tremendous achievement in special effects. Cameramen and directors watched the film repeatedly in a vain attempt to divine Keaton’s technique. 

Once Keaton places his character in this world, allowing him to pass through the screen, all cinematic rules are out the window. What follows is a madcap series of tricks and illusions as Buster, now transformed into Sherlock Jr., is able to pass through anything. He walks through a mirror; opens a safe and steps through it into the street; leaps through a window and is instantly transformed into an old woman; even dives through his assistant’s stomach when cornered in an alley and simply disappears.  

And there’s much more: A masterly display of trick billiard shots; dangerous stunts that see Keaton riding atop the handlebars of a driverless motorcycle; a daring run across the top of a moving train where Keaton leaps for a water tower as the train disappears beneath him, the water slamming him to the tracks (Keaton only found out years later that he had broken his neck during that scene); and the surrealistic image of Keaton piloting his car across a lake, one hand on the steering wheel, using the car’s convertible top as a sail as he attempts to guide the sinking vehicle back to shore.  

In Buster’s dream, he, as Sherlock Jr., the “crime-crushing criminologist,” solves the crime and rescues the girl.  

But meanwhile, as Buster dreams, his girl has easily solved the mystery and proven his innocence, returning to the projection booth to offer apologies. Buster of course is not prepared for the next step and must peek at the action on the screen for cues as to how to hold and kiss his girl. But once again, the language of cinema intercedes as the happy couple on the screen quickly dissolves from a kiss to bouncing babies on their knees, leaving Buster scratching his head, baffled once again.