Sherlock Jr is a timeless gem and one of Buster Keaton’s greatest achievements as an actor, stuntman and director. The film may well only last for 45 minutes but it manages to be more stunning, inventive and memorable than many a film which lasts for several hours.
Sherlock Jr highlights just what can be achieved on screen by filmmakers if they think outside of the box. It contains sequences and camera tricks that astounded audiences and fellow filmmakers of the time and left them eager to learn how they were achieved.
I think the film works as well as it does, not only because of the stunt work and visual effects, but also because it is at heart a film about an unlucky everyman character who we root for and want to be happy by the final scene.
While the film is universally loved and admired today the reaction upon its original release was very different. The critical reviews were very mixed and it would become the least popular of all of Buster’s Silent films, earning just $450,000 at the box office. In 1991 Sherlock Jr was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress due to being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
The film initially began life in 1923 under the working title of The Misfit with the title later being changed to Sherlock Jr. When work began on the film Buster hired his friend and former mentor Roscoe Arbuckle(nicknamed by fans as “Fatty” a name that he hated) to help him co-direct the film. Roscoe was a comedian, writer, actor and director, who had been working in film since 1909 and was the one who gave Buster his start in films.
The pair had first met in 1917 in New York where Buster was performing at New York’s Winter Garden theatre. Roscoe invited Buster(who at that point in his career had never made a film or even been inside a studio) to come down to the Norma Talmadge Studios(Buster would go on to marry Norma’s sister Natalie in 1921) where he was working on his latest film The Butcher Boy and perform a scene with him. Buster performed the scene, Roscoe liked what he saw, and Buster was hired on the spot and as a result a new cinematic partnership was born.
Buster and Roscoe went on to make a total of fourteen short films together between 1917 and 1920. Their partnership was interrupted by WW1 when Buster joined the 40th Infantry Division and served in France in 1918. After making their final film The Garage in 1920, Roscoe went to Paramount to star in feature-length films, while producer Joseph M. Schenck gave Buster his own production unit, Buster Keaton Productions, where Buster would make more short comedies and then begin work on feature films.
At the time work began on Sherlock Jr, Roscoe was in a bad way. He had been accused of the manslaughter of the actress Virginia Rappe, who had fallen seriously ill and been discovered in significant pain while attending a Labor Day party being hosted by Roscoe at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco in September, 1921. She died four days later.
Virginia Rappe and Roscoe Arbuckle. Image source Wikimedia Commons.
Virginia’s cause of death was peritonitis caused by a ruptured bladder. She had suffered from cystitis for some time and regularly suffered from urinary tract infections. She had been accompanied to the party by Bambina Maude Delmont, a woman who had a police record for extortion and blackmail, and who accused Roscoe of having raped Virginia at the party. Rumours swirled that he’d raped her or had lay on top of her and caused her internal damage by crushing her with his weight.
Virginia’s reputation was also trashed and put through the rumour mill with stories circulating that she had had a botched abortion and had been sexually promiscuous.The case was fueled by yellow journalism(what we here in the UK know as tabloid journalism). After three separate trials Roscoe Arbuckle was exonerated of the crime in 1922. He even received an apology from the final jury which was read out to the court:
“Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle. We feel that a great injustice has been done him. We feel also that it was only our plain duty to give him this exoneration, under the evidence, for there was not the slightest proof adduced to connect him in any way with the commission of a crime. He was manly throughout the case and told a straightforward story on the witness stand, which we all believed. The happening at the hotel was an unfortunate affair for which Arbuckle, so the evidence shows, was in no way responsible. We wish him success and hope that the American people will take the judgment of fourteen men and woman who have sat listening for thirty-one days to evidence, that Roscoe Arbuckle is entirely innocent and free from all blame.“
By the time the trials were over Roscoe Arbuckle had become a broken man. Near irrecoverable damage had already been done to his reputation and all his films had been pulled from circulation. Buster had stood by his friend throughout the scandal and trials and given him work on his films. When filming commenced on Sherlock Jr Roscoe became difficult on the set and this led to Buster taking solo directing duties. It is unclear which footage(if any)in the final edit of the film was directed by Roscoe Arbuckle. Roscoe would go on to direct some comedy shorts between 1924 and 1932 under the pseudonym William Goodrich. He enjoyed a brief comeback in 1933 signing a contract with Warner Bros under his own name to make six comedy shorts. On the 29th of June,1933, he signed a contract with Warner to star in a feature-length film. He suffered a heart attack that night and died.
Sherlock Jr contains some of Buster’s funniest moments on screen. I especially love the banana gag, which sees Buster’s character the projectionist setting a banana gag up to make rival for the woman he loves to slip, only to fall victim to it himself instead. This gag never fails to make me giggle and I really love how he plays with our expectations of the gag.
I also love the scene where he crashes through a window, slides along a table on his back and randomly kicks the man sitting at the end of the table straight out the other side of the wooden building. The sequence where he is looking for a dollar is hilarious too.
There’s also a wide range of very impressive stunts in this film. The sequence where Buster is on his runaway motorbike and narrowly avoids an oncoming train(a sequence shot in reverse) is a real highlight. I also love the scene in the sinking car. Another sequence, in which Buster is hit by a large amount of water when he grabs the water tower next to the train tracks, resulted in Buster being thrown to the ground by the sheer force of the water, hitting his head on a steel rail and passing out. When he came to he was in so much pain that he had to stop shooting for the rest of the day and he was left with severe headaches for several weeks afterwards. Buster didn’t know it at the time but he had broken his neck. He didn’t find out about this until many years later when he was examined by a doctor who discovered the evidence when conducting an X-ray
The film also features some truly amazing camera trickery and shots.There is one trick in particular in this that had me rewinding the DVD several times when I first saw it trying to work out how it was even possible. The scene I’m referring to is where Buster leaps into a suitcase held by another person and disappears. This shot was achieved by using an old vaudeville trick. There was a trap door behind the suitcase and the actor holding the case lay horizontally with some long clothes hiding the fact that there is no body there. The scene still never fails to leave me open mouthed despite understanding the technical aspects of the sequence.
Buster’s performance in this film is also a huge part of its charm in my opinion Buster makes his character a really sweet, shy and down on his luck guy and we root for him and feel sorry for him as he suffers injustice and heartbreak. When Buster becomes the detective later in the film his performance changes. I really like how he becomes a far more suave and confident man when he is in the film-within- a- film sequences.
Buster Keaton plays a gentle and shy cinema projectionist and cleaner. He is in love with a girl(the terrific Kathryn McGuire)who comes from a wealthy family. He also yearns to be a professional detective. The projectionist has a serious rival (Ward Crane)for the heart of his one true love.The rival steals the watch of the girl’s father(played by Buster’s father Joe Keaton) pawns it at a local shop, and then plants evidence on our poor hero to make out that he is the thief. The father banishes our hero, but the girl doesn’t believe his guilt for an instant and she sets out to prove his innocence.
One night, while running a mystery film at the cinema, our hero falls asleep. We next see his soul come out of his body (a remarkable sequence achieved by using double exposure) and walk off into the big screen to become a part of the film. In his dreams our hero transforms into the confident and famous detective Sherlock Jr. The actors playing the girlfriend and the rival replace the actors of the film into which our hero has just entered.
What I love most about the film-within-a-film is how random and mixed up it all is, just as dreams are while we are experiencing them. Once Buster’s film dream gets underway we have a series of stunts and sight gags to enjoy. Buster somehow controls a runaway motorbike by sitting on the handlebars and driving through heavy traffic. Buster jumps through things, off of things, and into things. Buster also narrowly avoids getting hit by a train in a scene that was apparently shot in reverse, but which doesn’t look like it to me. The film is non-stop action once the projectionist enters the film within the film.
I also love that the happy ending of the film shows that the projectionist has gained tips from films on how to be more socially confident and romantic. The ending reminds us that some things just can’t be learnt from films, instead we must go out and discover them for ourselves in reality. The projectionist has romance, adventures, opportunities and happiness of his own waiting for him just outside the cinema doors. He need only turn off the projector and go outside to find them.
Not only does the film serve as a terrific introduction to the work of our beloved Stone Face(for anyone who doesn’t know this was Buster’s nickname), but it also makes a perfect gateway film to use to introduce someone to Silent films for the very first time.
This is my entry for Lea’s annual Blogathon devoted to actor,comedian,director and stuntman extraordinaire, Mr. Buster Keaton. Be sure to visit her site Silent-ology on the 13th and 14th to read all of the entries.
6 thoughts on “The Ninth Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon: Sherlock Jr(1924)”
I agree that this is a perfect gateway silent film. It’s under an hour and still so brilliant technically. And the film’s commentary on movie fan culture is still relevant.
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I adore this film. There are a lot of impressive stunts, but like you pointed out, this is a film with heart – and with a tender love story, too. You’ve got me wanting to see it yet again!
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I once asked a group of Buster fans what film they thought would be considered his masterpiece if The General didn’t exist. Sherlock Jr won by quite a few votes!
It’s hard to pick my favorite gags, but I’ve always liked the ones where he’s playing pool–think of the amount of practice he needed.
Thanks for covering this classic film for the blogathon!
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This movie sounds wonderful. Definitely on my list.
“Sherlock, Jr” works for the head and the heart.” You are right that is an excellent gateway drug for silent movies, right up there with “One Week” and “The Boat.”