We have already yammered about a few early films that incorporated impressive dream sequences or dream imagery, but none of those movies have the relentless comedic energy of Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr. This 1924 silent comedy features Keaton as a cinema projectionist who literally leaps into the movies to fulfill his dream of being a detective. After falling asleep in his projection booth, Keaton’s dream-self enters the movie screen and begins a series of bizarre adventures that push the boundaries of early filmmaking and involve a number of inspired comedic set pieces — including perhaps the craziest motorcycle chase ever caught on film. Because it is all a dream, Keaton is able to throw away all pretense to reality and not let logic or physics get in the way of a good gag. Sherlock, Jr. may lack the grand scale complexity of Keaton’s triumph The General (1926), but the danger and derring-do of that later film can be found here in spades (Keaton actually fractured his neck doing one Sherlock, Jr. stunt). And as with any decent silent comedy it ends with a nice bit of romance… um, sort of. (45 min.)
S. – Relentless is an apt description for the laughs in this film. The funny stuff runs the gamut from wry grin moments to belly laugh zaniness without missing a beat. In addition to the amazing stunts that Buster Keaton is famous for, Sherlock, Jr. also contains some pretty nifty special effects that were skilfully integrated into the film. The storyline itself is rather preposterous but it seems petty to complain of such a thing when the movie keeps you happily entertained from beginning to end. One of the things that always amazes me, when it is done well, is how much can be communicated in silent films with minimal use of intertitles. When trying to set up a joke or build tension through an action sequence, having an intertitle appear can destroy the momentum. It is a pleasure to watch Keaton effortlessly convey everything the audience needs to know. For instance, while speeding along on the handlebars of an unmanned motorcycle Keaton manages to have an easily understandable (and very funny) interchange with the absent driver without the need to disrupt the heart-stopping ride. It is one of my favourite scenes among many highlights.
J. – The motorcycle scene is one of the best things I’ve seen in any movie period, but I don’t want to spoil the fun just yet (as if that were possible.)
I think one of the things I really appreciated about this movie is that it isn’t just a big series of gags; it continually escalates the scale of the laughs as it goes along. For all the zaniness packed into the film, it starts off very small scale with some clever but somewhat mundane jokes. This sort of loser with a bit of (bad) luck start to the movie reminded me rather strongly of the Charlie Chaplin films I have seen. I don’t want to knock Chaplin (because I really like his movies), but the Chaplinesque opening bits of Sherlock, Jr. are all a bit homey and twee compared to the places this movie ultimately goes. This isn’t to speak ill of the first few scenes but rather to hail the movie’s ability to snowball massively from a pea-sized start. S., you mention above that the story is preposterous almost as if that were a bad thing, but I personally think the film got some legs the instant it started to get preposterous, which in this case was probably the “shadowing” of the thief. That was a marvelous bit of physical comedy, and upped the ante with some seriously dangerous stunts. That bit where Keaton is standing between two train cars at the moment they slam together is insane — I think we both let out an involuntary gasp!
S. – I definitely wasn’t laughing then, I truly believed we were about to witness some squished comedian. The film did seem to keep upping the ante as it went along. The pacing from the shadowing scene until to just before the ending barely allowed time to draw breath, but I did appreciate that at the close it was brought back to sweet and silly. It shows the huge depths to Keaton’s comedic talent, the man knows funny. The special effects were deftly used, I really enjoyed the moment where his dream-self entered into the movie showing on the big screen at the picture theatre. Again without relying on intertitles it was simple to understand what was happening even though the idea of it was bizarre. One moment that was a little confusing occurred where what appeared to be a dress was packed into a thin drum that was placed in an open window frame. However, all became clear when Keaton leapt from the house, through the drum, emerging on the street disguised as an elderly woman to make his getaway. Ridiculous, hilarious and as ever skilfully executed.
J. – It was a wonderful comedic moment and really made excellent use of the dream logic that sets in after Keaton enters the movie screen — sure it was utterly impossible, but it was a brilliant joke. The actual moment where Keaton entered the movie screen was amazing. The way in which the scenery around him would change in a flash so that he might be walking along a sidewalk only to find himself on the edge of a precipice was so well done. Sometimes when these old films make these sorts of jump transitions (say, making something disappear suddenly) the movements and positioning of the actors really don’t line up, but it was nearly seamless in this instance, and was edited together fantastically. You can see why the idea was essentially stolen by the Looney Tunes people to do the classic Daffy Duck cartoon where the animator keeps changing the background.
In many ways the film was an ode to movies and the possibilities they allow and power they exert. The sweet and silly ending you mentioned was all about the potency of the movies (and it was really cute). Keaton isn’t able to express himself or understand how to be romantic without the movies to guide him. He’s probably not alone in that regard.
S. – It is a masterfully constructed movie. The relatively short run time (45 minutes) indicates that the breakneck pace maintained through two-thirds of the film was entirely intentional, there was plenty of opportunity for padding that, thankfully, was resisted. We have talked off-blog about this film having a surrealist bent but one quite different from that of Buñuel and Dalí. This is more about hyper-reality than a warped version of it, and rather than making a movie like real-life, it explores the idea of making real-life more like a movie. I’m glad you linked to a cartoon above that shows an obvious reference to the creativity of Sherlock, Jr., but I think the influence runs much deeper. The entire film has a cartoon-like quality, virtually any scene would translate as a snappy animated sequence. Except somehow Keaton consistently achieves these amazing and amusing feats despite the limitations of real people, real sets and the tyrant that is gravity.
J. – Indeed he does, which will lead us in a moment to the manic majesty of the motorcycle scene we have hinted at a few times already. But first I would like to make another quick point about the “movie-ness” of Sherlock, Jr. I’ve already said that this movie is clearly in love with the idea of movies, with the possibilities they present, but it goes beyond that. All of the Sight & Sound films that are older than Sherlock, Jr. relate stories that could have been told through other mediums — indeed some of them were based on novels. This story can only be a movie — it would be impossible to stage in a theater and it would be meaningless upon the printed page or over radio. It really demonstrates the depths of Keaton’s ability to see the medium as not just a way to tell stories but to make the hitherto impossible possible — or perhaps more accurately to make the previously unthinkable thinkable.
And what would could be more impossible than riding upon the handlebars of a speeding motorcycle that lacks a driver! How amazing was that scene? The sheer inventiveness of the seemingly never ending parade of obstacles is one things, but the speed, recklessness, danger, and split second timing was awe inspiring — and hilarious. In our yammer about The General you mentioned how you retroactively feel disappointed about every punch up atop a train you had previously seen; now I kind of feel that way about pretty much every cinematic car chase after seeing this motorcycle bit. And this is a slapstick comedy!
S. – It is a pleasure to watch Keaton push the boundaries of what a movie can be. These are not the tentative experiments of a director striving to tell a story on film, this is a master luring his audience into the back of a car and then speeding off to take them for the ride of their lives.