By André Crous
Sherlock Jr. is a film that uses every trick in the book to produce electrifying moments of comedy that can still thrill audiences today. It is also a shrewd representation of the place of film in our lives.
The poster shows Buster Keaton as a detective and as a beloved (projectionist). The credits merely list him in his parenthetical capacity, and in fact this occupation embraces the central part of the film, which takes the audience on a journey full of twists and turns that is very clearly related to the first part of the story.
Keaton, the man with the expressionless face who manages to find himself in extraordinary situations, stars as a guy who wants to be a detective as much as he wants to marry the Girl, but when he is framed by another suitor in the matter of a lost pocket watch, and his detective skills fail him, he dreams up a scenario in which he is the ultimate sleuth. This part of the film is presented in a way that excites by means of its presentation and its content.
This medium-length film is interesting on many levels, and while the action transcends mere slapstick (it is not repetitive and does not have any condescension for the film’s characters), Keaton’s conception of the film’s biggest stunts makes for remarkable commentary on the perspective of the viewer. Consider the following movements:
1) During a film screening in a big theatre, with a large audience watching, Keaton approaches the big screen and walks into the film. He subsequently appears in different scenes as the film cuts from one location to the next, and Keaton has to keep up with objects that appear out of nowhere.
2) In this film-within-a-film, Keaton follows some undesirables to their hide-out. He puts a rounded suitcase with a costume inside on the outside of the window, and when he escapes from the house by jumping through the window, he is instantly covered by this costume, and the criminals don’t recognise him. This particular scene is further enhanced by a cut-away image (produced by means of a kind of double exposure, a gimmick Keaton also uses to great effect in his 1928 film, The Cameraman) when the inside of the house can be seen “through the walls”. Technically, it must have been quite a job, but the final effect is breathtaking.
There are many other instances of such trickery, and in spite of (occasionally) less than perfect editing to disguise the manner in which they were done, the products are unexpected and work very well. Two other moments specifically target the perspective of the viewer:
1) When Keaton has already “entered” the screen, the camera dollies closer and closer, until the screen fills the frame, so that any subsequent scenes or cuts would appear like any other film and we forget that we are watching a film that is also being watched by the film’s audience. In this way, the second-level film becomes just as real or just as fake as the first-level film.
2) When Keaton wakes up from his dream and looks through the window of his projectionist’s booth towards the screen, his face is framed by a very clear border, similar to the image he himself is looking at: the framed image of the film in the theatre.
While Keaton doesn’t approach his subject with the same complexity as Woody Allen in The Purple Rose of Cairo, it remains a very entertaining film that touches on some important aspects of film reception. Unlike Chaplin, Keaton does not behave at all like a child, but rather like a very lucky average Joe, and since his technical skills enable a very entertaining telling of his story, he is by far the more serious director. In Sherlock Jr. he manages to craft a film that, while clearly not meant to be a feature-length idea, has enormous potential to entertain.
Director(s) Buster Keaton
Screenwriter(s) Jean Havez, Joseph A. Mitchell
Directors of Photography Clyde Bruckman, Elgin Lessley, Byron Houck
Running Time 44 minutes
André Crous is a professional film critic and a member of FIPRESCI. He holds a French honour’s degree, two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. His research examined the works of Francois Truffaut, Mikhail Kalatazov, Martin Scorcese, Paul Thomas Anderson and Michael Winterbottom. He writes about movies in his blog, Celluloid Paradiso and lives in Prague, Czech Republic. | Read More ⟩