Buster Keaton never aligned himself with the Surrealists or the avant-garde. His late in life experience acting in Samuel Becket’s Film (1965) proved a negative experience for the actor. Yet, Keaton possessed aesthetic qualities akin to Surrealist tenets, which made him a revered figure in that movement. Together with Playhouse (1921) and Frozen North (1922), Sherlock Jr. (1924) is one of Keaton’s most pronounced ventures into slapstick Surrealism.
At 45 minutes Sherlock Jr. is often listed as both a short and a feature. By 1924 standards it was considered a feature. Either way, it is perhaps the most innovative comedy of the entire silent era and it retains a formidable reputation among Keaton’s body of work. Being one of the earliest films about film, Sherlock Jr. blurs distinctions between real life and the dream world of cinema, but the phantasmagoric qualities always serve a linear narrative.
In this meticulously crafted, compact film, Keaton is a movie projectionist who dreams of being a detective. Keaton is trying to win the affections of a girl (Kathryn McGuire), but has a dastardly rival (Ward Crane). In attempt to steal McGuire from Keaton, Crane frames our protagonist as a thief. With his “How To Be A Detective” book in hand, Keaton follows closely on the heels of Crane.
The basic theme of any Keaton film is an everyday man attempting to win a pretty girl. Naturally, he encounters unrequited love and then must overcome insurmountable odds to win the heroine’s affections, which he usually does. The consummation of hero and heroine is of no interest, it is in the journey to true love that we encounter the joy of Keaton’s cinematic foreplay. Tensions, triumphs, failures and rebounds populate his promenade.
Keaton, who disavowed any claims of intellectualism, simply was inventive in spicing that repeated dish. Yet, Keaton’s interpretation of “spice” was, by any standards, a fearless one. Although he looks the part of a stone faced average Joe, once the projectionist dreams himself into celluloid, he becomes a flawless and imposing detective. Only someone with Keaton’s athletic abilities could have pulled the transition off so brilliantly. Keaton did, however, fracture his neck during the making of the film, which resulted in years of severe migraines. This was one of numerous injuries Keaton sustained throughout his career. In addition to aesthetic muscle flexing, Keaton shows off his virtuoso prowess as a billiard player in a compelling vignette. Despite that, Keaton never fails to remember his primary goal: to be a clown.
One of the funniest and most clever scenes in Sherlock Jr. is its finale in which actors on a fifty-foot screen teach the projectionist how to kiss a girl.
Sherlock Jr. was a substantial influence on Woody Allen‘s Purple Rose of Cairo (1985).
Next week, a Keaton double feature: the shorts Playhouse (1921) and the feature Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928).