Friday, December 06, 2019

Sherlock Jr. (1924)

USA, 45 minutes
Director: Buster Keaton
Writers: Jean C. Havez, Joseph A. Mitchell, Clyde Bruckman
Photography: Byron Houck, Elgin Lessley
Editors: Roy B. Yokelson, Buster Keaton
Cast: Buster Keaton, Kathryn McGuire, Ward Crane, Joe Keaton, Erwin Connelly

Buster Keaton's parody of both detective fiction and romance movies of the era finds him in good form. What is this Buster Keaton thing? Something about his very face and posture is somehow funny over and over—the stoic fool who never gives up hope. His strings are pulled by the movie magician stunt man who will try anything: fake mustaches everywhere you look, a banana peel gag (likely old even in 1924), poolroom trick shots in the service of proto-Hitchcockian suspense. He makes us think a doorway is a mirror and then that a doorway is a vault (a portrait of George Washington looks askance at the deception). He leaps through a window and into a dress and shortly after that he leaps through the body of his accomplice and a wall behind. It's impossible, don't you see, a special effect. He does these things because he can. His character, Sherlock Jr., is pure confidence in the breach, absurdly swaggering in top hat and tails. That confidence may bend but it is never broken. He is a nitwit, of course. Our man is actually a film projector who only dreams of becoming a detective. Most of the movie takes place as a movie-within-a-movie dream, which features him stepping in and out of the screen of the romance movie Hearts and Pearls, or The Lounge Lizard's Lost Love, which is playing at the movie theater where he works. Our point of view is from the seats in the audience (Woody Allen lifted and paid homage to it 60 years later in The Purple Rose of Cairo). At first, because the gag is about all the places he keeps finding himself with the cuts in the movie-within-a-movie, the movie-within-a-movie briefly no longer makes sense, roaming for no apparent reason from cliffsides to African jungle with lions and so forth. Soon enough it remembers itself. The dry and gently acerbic tone of the whole thing is captured in an intertitle: "By the next day the mastermind had completely solved the mystery—with the exception of locating the pearls and finding the thief." The best is saved for last, as Buster Keaton was a filmmaker who always knew what he was doing, and more so in his prime. A spectacular and often very funny chase scene with a motorcycle and cars and many stunts is set in motion by a signature grand stunt, vaulting off a second-story rooftop into a moving automobile using a railroad crossing guard (somehow the driver never notices). No doubt Keaton really did it and lots of other stuff here too—he spent months learning the pool shots, for example. He was like that. That stone face tells everything and nothing.

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