25 June 2013

Sherlock Jr.

While I'm a big fan of Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, I simply adore Buster Keaton. I think it's that great stone face of his (nothing is sadder than Keaton's eyes after he's been rejected) and those amazing athletic feats of daring that he makes look effortless. And while some will wax on about how The General is his greatest film, I prefer Sherlock Jr. (1924).

In Sherlock Jr. the Boy (Buster Keaton) is a moving picture operator who dreams of becoming a famous detective. He's in love with the Girl (Kathryn McGuire) but has a rival for her affections, the Local Sheik (Ward Crane). The Boy purchases a box of chocolates from a salesgirl (Ruth Holly) at the confectionery shop (who, if we’re being honest, looks like she’s probably a lot more fun than the Girl), which he gives to his love along with a tiny engagement ring (he hands her his detective magnifying glass to see the diamond). The Sheik, wanting to outdo the Boy, steals a watch belonging to the Girl’s father (played by Keaton’s real life father, Joe) and pawns it in order to buy an even bigger box of chocolates. When the father notices that the watch is missing, the Boy consults his detective book, which tells him to search everyone. The plan backfires when the pawn ticket, which the Sheik has slipped into the Boy’s pocket, is discovered. The Girl returns his ring, and the Boy is ejected from the house.

At first the Boy attempts to trail the Sheik but he winds up on top of a moving train and grabs onto a spout from the water tower to escape only to get doused with water. Keaton was famous for doing all of his own stunts and rarely suffered any injuries but in this scene he nearly got himself killed. While hanging from the spout, the pressure from the water knocked him down onto the tracks. Keaton complained of headaches for days. Years later a doctor discovered that he had in fact fractured his neck that day.
The boy returns to work and begins the first reel of Hearts & Pearls, a movie about the theft of a pearl necklace. He soon becomes drowsy and falls asleep. Suddenly a “dream” version of the Boy steps away from the sleeping Boy and takes his “dream” hat off a peg. On the screen, the actors in Hearts & Pearls are replaced by people in the Boy’s life, including the Girl and the Sheik. Walking down the aisle, the Boy stops to sit for a moment and then steps up onto the stage and into the movie itself. Thus begins a movie within a movie, the first time this device was employed.

Keaton accomplished this fantastical scene by first filming the Hearts & Pearls scene with the actors and then replicating the set on a stage. When it came time to film the Boy stepping through the screen, Keaton had the film cut from the movie to the projection booth and then back to the stage where the actors from the movie were now standing on the set. He then simply went up on the stage and walked onto the set.

Once in the movie, he confronts the Sheik (now portraying the villain) who literally kicks him out of the picture (we see the real Boy asleep in the projection booth twitch). He tries again and succeeds, this time sneaking in from the side of the frame. The Boy walks up the steps of a house and knocks but no one answers. He turns to walk away and suddenly he's falling into a garden from a stonewall. What follows are a series of jumps in which his every action lands him in a different location. At one point he's surrounded by lions and when he turns to walk away he steps out of a pit in the desert.

One can view the scene as the movie literally trying to reject the intruder. The Sheik kicked him out of the movie because the Boy didn’t belong. The entire sequence is also a commentary on film making itself with its quick edits that move from one scene to the next. Yet while the surroundings change, Keaton always appears to be in the same spot. There was no green screen for Keaton. Instead he and his photographer used surveying tools to ensure that Keaton kept the same pose for the following shot. So when Keaton goes to dive into the ocean and winds up in a snowbank, the jump appears flawless.

Meanwhile back in the movie, the theft of the pearl necklace has been noticed and the world’s greatest detective is called in, Sherlock Jr. Enter the Boy as Sherlock Jr, living out the Boy’s fantasy and now with a reason to be in the movie—he has a part to play. Dressed in a nice suit and hat, Sherlock Jr. is everything the real Boy is not—sophisticated, wise, and in charge. 

After an attempt by the Sheik and his hired man to kill Sherlock (a pool ball loaded with explosives is employed among other things), the detective follows the Sheik and discovers the pearls only to be grabbed by a gang of thugs. He escapes but when he learns that the Girl has been kidnapped, Sherlock is off to her rescue. 

The movie within a movie is filled with elements of surrealism, a reminder that it's all a dream. The Boy walks into a movie and seems to jump from one location into another. He opens the large door of a safe only to reveal a busy city street. He opens another door to find a man trapped in a tight cage, practically spinning around the room. Is it any wonder that the surrealists were Keaton fans?

Keaton also includes some Vaudeville stunts. When Sherlock escapes from a house, he jumps through a suitcase of clothes that is propping open a window. When he lands, he's dressed like a woman. Keaton has the side of the house “disappear” so the audience can see that it's a gag and not a camera trick. Later, he appears to jump through the stomach of an old woman but this time the gag is not revealed.

The chase that ends the movie illustrates one of the more daring stunts in the film. Sherlock hitches a ride on the handles of a motorbike driven by his Gillette his valet (Ford West). Gillette soon falls off the bike but the bike keeps going, with Sherlock on it. Only after avoiding multiple disasters (a train, broken bridge) does Sherlock realize the dire situation he's in; seconds later the bike crashes through the cabin where the Girl is being held. Rescuing her, he steals a car and drives them accidentally into a lake where they sail for a while courtesy of the car’s convertible top, before sinking, forcing them to swim for shore.

Back in the projection booth, the Boy wakes up and the movie returns to normal. Disappointed it was all a dream, he turns to find the Girl who apologizes; the truth about the Sheik's deception has been uncovered. The innocent Boy then does what so many people do, he looks to the movies for inspiration. Turning the girl so they mimic the stance of the couple on the screen, the Boy proceeds to copy the male lead’s moves. He kisses her hand, puts the ring back on her finger, and kisses her quickly on the mouth before scratching his head at the last shot—the movie couple bouncing a pair of babies.

I've seen this film multiple times and yet I never fail to be impressed by Keaton's ingenuity or moved by the sweetness of the Boy's courtship of the Girl. Sherlock Jr. is a 
compact 44 minutes of pure comedic genius. Oh, Buster. You're the best.

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