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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Buster Keaton's most surreal movie sprang from his insistence on logic
and realism. His tribute to cinema was inspired by stage magic tricks
he remembered from his vaudeville career. His most dazzling and
original movie is also one of his least formally perfect. All these
paradoxes belong naturally to this "through the looking glass" work,
which examines the dream-like nature of filmor is it the film-like
nature of dreams?
As Buster told it, the origin of the film lay in his desire to use certain illusionary stunts, like the bewildering dive through a living assistant's stomach, which he had learned the secret of as a child. But he firmly believed that impossible or "cartoon" gags were not acceptable in feature films, so he could only include them by making them occur in a dream, which is also a film-within-a-film. This is odd, when you think about it, since what he seems to be saying is that impossible things can happen in a filmbut this was the very rule he himself refused to break. By creating an outer film that is "real" and an inner film that is "not real," Keaton shows that, while film enables illusions and distortions of reality, the filmmaker has a choiceand a responsibilityto clearly delineate fact from fantasy. In one scene, Keaton uses a camera trick (dissolving a wall) to prove that he's NOT using a camera trick when he dives through a window and comes out disguised as an old woman. Because he was analytical, mechanically-minded, and a stickler for authenticity, Keaton took pleasure in revealing the processes of magic tricks, and camera tricks, rather than using them to fool the audience.
Buster plays a hapless cinema projectionist who yearns to be a detective, but is so clueless that his romantic rival manages to frame him for stealing his girlfriend's father's watch. In a dream, he enters the film he's projecting and becomes a great detective who solves a similar crime. While Buster's on-screen character is a schlemiel who can only achieve mastery in his celluloid fantasies, as a director Keaton's grasp of the mechanics of film-making enabled him to control the camera and its imagery as thoroughly and gracefully as he controlled his acrobatic body. SHERLOCK JR. is the most technically advanced film he ever made, including special effects (as when Buster steps through the screen and gets edited from park bench to street to mountain-top to lion's den) that can still leave audiences wondering, "How in hell did he do that?" It's often said that Keaton's films inspire gasps rather than laughs. Well, I just saw SHERLOCK JR. with an audience last night, and the laughter was loud and regular as fireworks on the Fourth of July. But it's a particular kind of laughter: surprised, amazed, incredulous laughter.
The first half of the movie takes place in the "real" world; it begins with some nice small-scale gags involving Buster's attempts to scrounge up money to buy candy for his girl, and his adorably awkward visit to her house. After he has been thrown out due to his rival's machinations, Buster "shadows" the man (literally, copying his every motion exactly), but is tricked again and trapped in a freight train. There's a beautiful shot where he runs along the top of the train, staying in the same spot on the screen while the cars zoom by under him in the opposite direction; but I can't watch the stunt where he rides a water-spout down to the tracks without wincing, knowing he fractured his neck doing it.
The beginning of the dream sequence is one of the greatest self-reflexive scenes in the history of film, as Buster's ghostly double rises from his sleeping body, picks up his ghostly hat, marches down into the theater and steps into the screen. Haven't we all wanted to do this at some time? Once over his turbulent introduction to the medium, Buster becomes the elegant Sherlock, Jr., investigating a theft of pearls from a mansion. In a marvelous game of billiards, Buster smoothly plays around an exploding 13 ball; he escapes from the thieves' den with one of the neatest tricks you'll ever see; he rides through busy streets on the handlebars of a motorcycle that no one is driving; and he goes for a romantic sail in a floating car. All this is packed into a mere 45 minutes.
Significantly cut after poor previews, SHERLOCK JR. has more in common with Keaton's short films than his features. Because of the fractured story-line, it doesn't have the narrative coherence or trajectory of character development that most of Keaton's great features do. His performance is split between the shy, inept projectionist and the suave, infallible detective. He is totally convincing in both roles. When he wakes from his dream, the projectionist finds that all is well: the girl has solved the mystery and come to apologize. He is still timid as ever, so for a romantic denouement he looks to the screen: peeking out of his booth, he copies the actions of the movie hero wooing his leading lady. This is Keaton's most trenchant bit of social satire: whose ideas of kissing and love-making haven't been influenced by what they see at the movies?
It's almost impossible to describe the astounding creativity of "Sherlock,
Jr". Even for Buster Keaton, this is a tremendous display of comedic and
fantasy material. What's so remarkable is not so much any particularly
hilarious gag or gags, as the never-ending stream of amazing and
entertaining sights - coming faster and faster as the film proceeds - that
seem so off-hand and effortlessly inventive, but that must have involved
many hours of painstaking work to perfect. The film vs. reality theme is
also highly suggestive, and makes this great movie one of the most
completely satisfying efforts by Keaton or anyone else.
The film opens slowly and allows the pace to build gradually. Buster operates the movie projector at a theater, while trying to study on his own to be a detective. He is involved in a real-life mystery that involves his girlfriend's family, and which turns out badly for him. He retreats into the fantasy world of a picture showing at his theater, and from then on you just have to see it to appreciate it. The creative comedy, the technical skill, and the subtly expressed themes are all remarkable.
This is a great experience not to be missed.
Not only is this Buster Keaton's best film, but it is among the
greatest achievements in the history of cinema, period. While it is not
a feature-length film--and thus barred from most critics' lists of
great films--it invented just about every single basic special effect
known to movies (except for morphing). The story itself, about a film
projectionist who desires to become part of the movies, and then does,
by walking right onto the screen, made palpable the desire that we all
have to be in the movies: To get the girl, to be an action hero, to
outsmart the bad guys. Keaton invented meta-cinema before anyone even
had a phrase for it.
This movie has entered our dreams.
Though a lot of older films tend to be neglected, Sherlock Jr.
definitely isn't a film that could be called obscure. I imagine most
people at least know OF this movie with its famous movie-in-a-movie
Still, having previously heard over and over again about the brilliance of this film, I never really understood until I saw it myself. It's not just the dream-story and the surreality, it's what Keaton does with it and the importance he places on cinema. This film is even rather unique in using montage in a new way, or showing how much film appeals to the imagination as much as an artistic endeavor.
Thus, this film itself becomes both wildly imaginative and brilliantly artistic... and best of all, it's FUNNY! Thus, it becomes a film for everyone. There's no hard-found artistic conceit that leads to cries of "Pretentious!", but still people can say "It's amazing." There's no comedic conceit that says, "Bah, just simple slapstick, it's low-culture!" because it's rather intelligently done. And it's creative in a way that isn't like an opium-dream. It can appeal to anybody of all ages. It's one very well-done film.
I have to say that this is by far Keaton's finest work. I have seen and own about 19 of his films/short films and this is the one that truly stands out.
It is rare these days to find a comedy which will make you laugh each and every time you see it. Yet this one, to me, seems not only to be able to do this but also to get BETTER the more you watch it.
The physical comedy, sight gags and insane stunts never cease to amaze me. That is what I love about Buster, the fact he did his own stunts shows that he was a great believer in producing a film that was genuine, that didnt try to trick or fool it's audience.
I find it sad that today most people seem to think that comedy is about dialouge and punch lines, when it is clear from film master pieces such as Sherlock Jr. that this is not true. Silent movies are not to be ignored just because they are 'old', when I watch many of them they feel as fresh as any new comedy - if not more so.
So thank-you Buster!
This Keaton classic is both funny and extremely clever in its
construction. Our hero is a cleaner but dreams of becoming a detective,
always with his nose buried in a book on the subject.
The first third of the film is much like any other comedy. There are lost dollar bills, things sticking to other things, something stolen, mistaken identities. Our heroine is introduced in a charming scene where they seem terrified to hold hands. Her father is played by Buster's father Joe Keaton, who would appear in many of his son's films.
There's a mustachioed cad with slick hair and a sharp suit who is after the girl, a cartoon baddie who the audience instinctively knows deserves a hiss and not a cheer.
It is in Junior's other job as a cinema projectionist that the film comes alive. We are watching the film he has set up and then, suddenly, he is part of the action. In a sequence of great inventiveness, we see the film within a film changing scenes and watch with delight as the character adapts to each situation and surrounding.
Sherlock Jr is very funny but is also unusual and, in comparison with other comedies of the period, ahead of its time. It includes some excellent stunts that are the equal of anything done by Harold Lloyd in the same period, and, although it has a very short running time, manages to develop a good storyline throughout.
Justly feted as a masterpiece of silent comedy, Sherlock Jr represented one of the peaks of Buster Keaton's cinematic career. It is a film worth watching and has stood up well today.
As I sat reading the other reviewers comments I wondered what I could add. Oddly enough I watched Sherlock jr only this afternoon, after so many viewings it still amazes me how far ahead of his time Buster Keaton was, often copied, rarely equalled never surpassed. I would hate to be the kind of movie fan who never watches silent or black and white movies (you'd be surprised how many there are). So if you are like that do yourself a favour, get hold of a copy of this movie and enjoy, it shocks me that films such as 'Something about Mary' are rated higher than this masterpiece of comedy, there is nothing wrong with 'SaM' even I laughed at it, but, watching it once was enough, however I watch Sherlock jr again and again in pure amazement at Buster Keaton and his cameraman, Elgin Lessley's achievements without the aid of modern technology, like most other's the scene where he dives through a window to reappear as a little old lady gobsmacks me, how did he do it? Keaton can only be described in one word, genius. I have to add that I have the Kino version on DVD with the appalling soundtrack, but, luckily I also have it with a more appropriate soundtrack, which is far superior and adds extra enjoyment to an already fabulous movie.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Although short by comparison to his other features (by up to half an
hour) this is Buster's most cinematic feature and shows all his mastery
of film technique and the magic of special effects editing. In fact
it's a primer on brilliant editing - the best edited silent film I've
The classic moments are many:
***WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD ****
1. The lost dollar gag with a wallet hidden in trash. 2. The gift of a small diamond and a magnifying glass to view it with. 3. The brilliant nine shot/three minute editing sequence with Keaton in the film he is projecting with constantly changing backdrops. 4. The explosive pool ball always miraculously "missed" in the solo pool game. 5. The home with the mirrored room and the safe as entry door. 6. The jump through the window into an old lady costume. 7. The jump through the middle of his assistant. 8. The perfectly timed motorcycle ride over the gapped bridge. 9. The swamped car as boat complete with sail.
This has to be the cleverest film ever imagined. Along with SEVEN CHANCES, it's my favorite Keaton and a must see for anyone interested in either film art or Keaton's comedy.
The KINO print is crisp and clear and the score (part old fashioned jazz, part modern) is provided by the Club Foot Orchestra.
Sherlock, Jr. arguably exceeds The General as Buster Keaton's greatest achievement -- it is certainly more magical in its use of extraordinary special effects and unconventionally humorous situations. Movies about movies are a dime a dozen, but rather difficult to do well. Keaton's brilliant structuring of the story -- a fantastic treat for audiences when his pathetic projectionist becomes the genius detective through a literal entering of the movie screen -- has been imitated dozens of times, but I always come back to this unsurpassable rendering. Watching Keaton play the scene where he studies how to go about kissing his best girl by peeking at a movie version of the same event always reduces me to simultaneous jags of tears and laughter.
There ought to be a theater that shows nothing but perfectly preserved prints of the silent comedies of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Harry Langdon. There ought to be a lot of things, I guess. But anyone who thinks that silent film is nothing more than a crude and unskilled ancestor of today's motion picture need only spend some time on these great comedies to realize that, in this genre at least, the peak was reached in the 20s. Yes, there are funny movies with dialogue, but the humor is generally IN the dialogue...nobody--not the Marx Brothers, or W.C. Fields, or Abbot and Costello or the Three Stooges and nobody since--has achieved the sublime mastery of physical comedy these geniuses did. And the best of them all for pure comedy, to my mind, is Keaton. And the best of his movies is Sherlock, Jr. The dream sequence in which he becomes an actor in the film he's projecting is astonishing; the way in which this movie is a sort of window into a different and appealing age is charming--and the ending of this movie takes the breath away. Keaton made some of the great endings in film, I think. Check out "College" some time--just for the last minute or so. If you ever have the chance to see this film in a good print at the right speed with appropriate music, and you don't take that opportunity, shame shame shame. This is one I'd like to own.
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