#59) Sherlock Jr. (1924)
OR “A Study in Silent”
Directed by Buster Keaton
Written by Jean Havez & Joe Mitchell and Clyde Bruckman
Class of 1991
The Plot: A young film projectionist/amateur detective (Buster Keaton) vies for the affection of a young woman (Kathryn McGuire) against a rival (Ward Crane). When he is framed for stealing the pocket watch of the girl’s father (Joe Keaton), he is banned from ever seeing her again. While on the job he falls asleep and dreams he can walk into the movie he’s showing. He assumes the role of Sherlock Jr. and solves a mystery using only his detective skills, his porkpie hat, and his deadpan demeanor.
Why It Matters: The NFR praises Keaton and calls the film “a comedic masterpiece that both acknowledges and embraces the cinematic medium”.
But Does It Really?: This is another one where I didn’t write down too many notes because I was laughing too hard. Of the silent film legends, Keaton has always been my favorite. Chaplin had the pathos, but Keaton had the technique. His films contain a seemingly endless supply of gags and stunts, all performed in-camera with no special effects (sometimes at the sacrifice of Keaton’s own health). “Sherlock Jr.” cannot be beat in terms of sheer ingenuity. Plus it’s a breezy 45 minutes. It tells the story it needs to tell and doesn’t forget to be uproariously funny.
Everybody Gets One: Leading lady Kathryn McGuire started off as a dancer and performed in several Mack Sennett comedies. This brought her to Keaton’s attention and he cast her in this film as well as “The Navigator”**. In the late ‘20s she retired from acting to marry and raise a daughter.
Wow, That’s Dated: Phrases like “the local sheik”. Also the job of film projectionist.
Title Track: Keaton is introduced as “Sherlock Jr.” only once about halfway through the film.
- Why the fake moustache at the beginning?
- That’s Keaton’s dad Joe playing the girl’s father.
- Only Keaton could make a banana peel gag work and still be funny.
- Ah yes, back in the days when a detective would just show up to your house.
- How did the demonstration of the exploding pool ball not arouse immediate suspicion?
- Wow, this film has more impressive trick shots than “The Hustler”.
- I know it’s a dream and all, but what happens when they have to change reels?
- The story goes that Keaton broke his neck by falling on a railroad track too hard. He kept going and didn’t know he broke it until years later!
- Keaton’s assistant sort of looks like young Ian McKellen.
- So, the bad guys have a guy just hanging around in a torture device?
- This film is filled with a lot of amazing stunts, but the shot of Keaton diving into the suitcase tops them all. I’ve had the trick explained to me and I’m still not quite sure how they did it.
- Let the record show that for my stag party I’d also like to play tug o’ war.
- Like many of the great film detectives, Sherlock Jr. relies primarily on luck and coincidence.
- In “The Purple Rose of Cairo”, Woody Allen flips the idea and shows a character walking out of a movie.
Further Viewing: I’m a big fan of the video essay series “Every Frame a Painting” by Tony Zhou (what is it about guys named Tony and classic films?). His look at Buster Keaton in “The Art of the Gag” is insightful, thoroughly researched, and above all an entertaining tribute to the master. Look for all of these Keaton rules the next time you watch one of his pictures.
** 2018 Update: And now “The Navigator” is on the Registry! Kathryn gets two!!