The ‘Great Stone Face’ earned himself the name Buster from his vaudeville act as a child. The seemingly indestructible young Keaton of the family trio would be launched by his father, aided by a handle sewn within his clothes, into orchestra pits and the audience yet emerge with his trade mark poker face. Viewing Sherlock Jr conjures up the romanticised origin of cinema’s greatest stunt man in one of the most daring and innovative comedies to entrance an audience.
It is said that Keaton causes more gasps than laughs and this film may be the source of this claim. The adventure belongs to a film projectionist using his limited skills to solve a case of theft. Though an ephemeral run time of forty five minutes, Sherlock Jr is perhaps the defining Keaton piece of countless death defying stunts, hilarious gags and a romanticism for both the heroine and cinema.
Keaton is capable of delighting with the simplest of gags like slipping on a banana peel or trying to rid himself of a piece of sticky paper, but Keaton is a bold and courageous auteur. Keaton crashes, falls, rolls and cracks with the same blank expression any other person would produce when day dreaming. We laugh because it is dangerous and we love Keaton because he gets up again, ready for another round. In this picture, Keaton very nearly didn’t get up. The film projectionist escapes to the top of a moving train and leaps carriage to carriage before dangling from the pump of a filling station and crashing down in a torrent of water. Keaton landed on his neck, got up and ran off. This incident remains in the final print.
Time and again across such a short screen time, Keaton delights with these dangerous stunts. Often, it is difficult to laugh with nerves tightening in the stomach, but there is a pleasure found in dread for a hero unaware of his dire situation. This picture has one of the best. In an incredible sequence, Keaton rides on the front of a motor bike, unaware the driver (stunt performed by Keaton), fell off the back of the bike. Keaton careens through busy traffic and misses a hurtling oncoming train by half a second. All sheer luck. Keaton says himself – ‘Tragedy is a close-up; comedy, a long shot’, if his actions were caught in intimate detail, it would be impossible to watch.
Keaton exercises his vast vocabulary for comedy. Stunts and Keaton are synonymous, but Keaton delves into his showmanship origins with incredible skills and magic tricks. As his dream counterpart, Sherlock Jr, Keaton mesmerises as he efficiently and easily clears a pool table. How was this accomplished? Keaton simply studied pool from a master for months before hand. Sherlock is being chased and turns down a dead end. His trusty sidekick holds an open suitcase, the heavies appear, ready to beat Keaton black and blue when suddenly our hero turns and dives into the suitcase. Vanishing. No vast camera trickery is required, only a know how of stage illusion and a dedication to perfectionism. Keaton is a one man circus of tricks, the pratfalls of a clown, the mystery of a magician and the ring master behind the camera.
In an interview concerning this film, Keaton remarked ‘I did not want it to be surrealistic, I just wanted it to look like a dream’.
It certainly feels like a dream. Supposedly the forty minute run time was the result of cuts after initial poor reviews and as such the balance of the film is off kilter. At the halfway mark, the film projectionist falls asleep at his post and exits his body in a ghostly outline before entering the film world. However, this increases the joy of the Sherlock Jr. Keaton moves in wholly unexpected ways, getting better of an anticipating audience.
In many ways, Sherlock Jr is a love letter to the art of cinema. Keaton was a stickler for authenticity, providing gags suited only to a valid source. But, as Keaton’s projectionist enters the film world, anything can happen. The projectionist is suddenly at the whim of editing as he dives off a cliff to the sea but lands face first in snow, then suddenly the freezing climate becomes a searing jungle of lions. Pure cinematic magic. Strangely, Keaton had to demonstrate entering a film within a film to free himself of restriction. Within film, anything is possible and Keaton makes it appear so.
If Chaplin walked into trouble, Lloyd had trouble happen to him, then Keaton made trouble. Sherlock Jr is a pure Keaton picture.
The projectionist wakes in his booth to find his true love before him. He wants to marry her, but he is unsure how. The flicker of the premier continues and the protectionist gazes towards it. Keaton replicates move for move the instructions of the romantic cinematic couple. It is a funny and moving moment. But, like Keaton, the final dissolve to the couple cradling babies leaves Keaton scratching his head in bewilderment, wondering, like us with all Keaton’s pictures, how did they do that?