Buster Keaton’s miraculous Sherlock Jr. (1924) is the silent movie for people who don’t like silent movies. Whenever I encounter people who inform me that they hate silents but fail to recall the name of a single one they’ve seen, I suggest they try this one, which demands only 45 minutes of one’s time and features the most modern of silent comedy legends in his most modern film.
Chaplin was the better physical performer (not just over Keaton, who gave him a run for his money, but over nearly every other performer in movie history) and many of the Tramp’s bits were more laugh-out loud funny, but Keaton falls more easily into the sensibility of the 21st century because of his cool detachment and wry deadpan. Chaplin and Lloyd would look like men who were in dangerous situations; Keaton looked like a man for whom dangerous situations were boring.
What makes this further impressive is that Keaton was really in those dangerous situations, doing all his own stunts and keeping a straight face. His performance is counter to human nature, resisting distress when in peril and joy when delivered from it. Take a sequence in Sherlock Jr. in which Keaton is playing pool. The number 13 ball is a bomb planted there to kill him and will explode on contact. Keaton, unaware of the danger, takes aim right at the 13 ball in ways that suggest that it must be struck but it never quite does. These pool shots would take considerable skill, and Keaton must make a number of them in a row with less margin for error than even a real pool player trying to get a ball in a pocket. Keaton remains stone-faced the entire time. Think of the last time you played pool. Think of the last time you made a remarkable shot. Weren’t you grinning like an idiot?
In Sherlock Jr. Keaton plays a projectionist at a movie theater who dreams of being a detective. He’s in love with a girl (Kathryn McGuire) who is also being pursued by a sharky rake (Ward Crane) who is buying her affection with his ill-begotten fortune. While at work, Keaton falls asleep and dreams himself into the movie his theater is showing, which is a mystery story. Keaton becomes the famous detective Sherlock Jr. and tries to get to the bottom of a necklace heist, leading to my favorite title card of perhaps any silent movie: “By the next day the master mind had completely solved the mystery—with the exception of locating the pearls and finding the thief.” The object of his affection turns up as the owner of the purloined jewelry and his rival is the thief. After avoiding a half–dozen attempts by the villain and his gang to bump him off, Keaton solves the crime and administers justice, winning his lady’s heart, a fact that is replicated in real life when he wakes up.
The story chews Keaton up and spits him out in short order but has enough space for some of his greatest bits. One of my favorites is an early sequence in which Keaton is sweeping up trash in front of the theater and he keeps finding dollar bills in the litter. He can’t believe his good fortune (I think he reacts with a slightly raised eyebrow), as he’s trying to save for a gift for his love. Unfortunately, people approach him saying they’ve dropped a dollar, and he’s too honest not to return them to him (though he makes them describe it first) until he’s got only one dollar left, too little for the gift he was eyeing. A man comes up to him asking for something he dropped and Keaton is about to divulge his last buck until the man reaches down for his loaded wallet, also among the trash, sending Keaton to furiously paw through this seemingly magical, and seemingly exhausted, trash pile.
The film’s showpiece, however, is Keaton’s entrance into the world of the movies. This famous sequence, which is very funny, transcends comedy a little. Keaton, in a dream, walks down the aisle of the theater and into the screen in one shot and a character pushes him out into the theater again. You realize this must have been one set, with the theater and the movie players existing in the same space but with the movie lit brighter. It’s very impressive. Once Keaton has entered the movie, the movie he entered changes, so while he might be leaning against a lamppost in a city in one moment, in another the lamppost disappears and he’s in danger of falling over a cliff in the Grand Canyon. This type of quick location change is a staple of animation but it’s much more difficult to do in live action, even more so in 1924, and in Sherlock Jr. it’s seamless, creating a sequence that doesn’t make you laugh as much as it amazes you.
There’s also a chase on top of a train and on top of a motorcycle to show off Keaton’s physical abilities (Keaton is on the handlebars of a bike while a man drives, until the man is knocked off, unbeknownst to Keaton). Keaton’s body stuff doesn’t have the devilish humor of Chaplin’s, but it’s more dangerous. In the train sequence (Keaton loved trains, and they figure proximately in his greatest film The General ), Keaton has to run on top of a locomotive and grab hold of a huge spigot from a water tower, which, after the train goes by, will open up and have gallons of water knock him to the ground 10 feet below. Chaplin wouldn’t do anything that immediate (Chaplin preferred to establish comic gags and repeat them with endless complications), but I don’t think he would have tried anything that blatantly dangerous either. Keaton‘s stunts get their laughs from their audacity, and there’s always an undertone of suspense to them. Returning to the pool table sequence, which has a mixture of anxiety and humor that would have made Hitchcock green, we laugh because we’re relieved.
Sherlock Jr. is Keaton’s most accessible film and it glides along with the grace of its creator. We often talk about the comedy legends of the silent era as if they’re made of marble and are to be studied and lionized (for example, I just realized I had been referring to the great Chaplin only by last name [his first is Charlie, if you’re interested]), but that robs them of some of their fun and certainly of the intention to entertain. I don’t think Keaton set out to make a meta film masterpiece in Sherlock Jr. because the idea of meta film (and of a cinematic masterpiece) hadn’t been invented yet. He wanted to entertain people and he stretched the limits of the technology so he could do so better than anyone else. In many ways, he still does.