I'm not ashamed (well maybe I'm a little ashamed) to admit that despite my status as an avid movie geek, there are a few gaps in my knowledge. The largest of these gaps is that of the silent film. Given that silent movies provide a connection to the dawn of the motion picture, it is important that all cinephiles acquaint themselves with as many as possible -- if for no other reason than to understand the roots of our beloved art form. I will be watching as many silent films as I possibly can, and, each month, will spotlight the titles that really standout.
This week we give "The Silent Treatment" to a classic comedy: 'Sherlock Jr.'
The Basic Story
A projectionist/janitor at a movie house dreams of becoming the world's greatest detective. What time he doesn't idle away with his nose buried in instructional criminal investigation books or sweeping up the aisles is spent doting on a beautiful young girl whom we wishes to marry. His rival for the girl's affection is a dastardly cad who steals her father's watch to pay for an elaborate gift to gain the edge over the near penniless projectionist. When the watch is discovered missing, the vile suitor frames the projectionist for the crime. Suddenly he is unwelcome in the girl's home and falls out of her favor. How can this fledgling detective clear his name and win back his love?
'Sherlock Jr.' stars the legendary Buster Keaton who also directed the film. Buster Keaton, along with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, is one of the preeminent pioneers of cinematic comedy. Keaton made a name for himself performing with his family on vaudeville and became known for his ability to perform dangerous physical comedy and maintain a straight face no matter how much a particular fall or tumble may have hurt. His introduction to film was working on several shorts with another comedy legend: Fatty Arbuckle. When he began making films on his own, still employing the stunt-like physical comedy that had wowed vaudeville audiences, he became one of the most popular figures of the early age of cinema.
Like last month's entry, 'Metropolis,' 'Sherlock Jr.' was recently released on Blu-ray by Kino International. Frankly, with Kino's proven dedication to preserving and restoring silent film, it stands to reason that many of the entries in this series will be Kino releases. Here again, the picture and sound quality of the Blu-ray belie the number of decades that have passed since Sherlock Jr. was produced. This particular release features a second Buster Keaton film entitled 'Three Ages,' but 'Sherlock Jr.' is by far the superior film.
What Makes It Special?
'Sherlock Jr.' is a fantastic demonstration of Keaton's talents. His timing is absolutely impeccable and there are gags that are far more ambitious than one would expect (the bicycle squence immediately leaps to mind). Also impressive is the extended sequence when he is shadowing the evil suitor and manages to match his movements exactly; even catching his discarded cigarette in stride. There is also a joke involving an explosive billiard ball that features evidence that Keaton was either an expert at the game or the editing of 'Sherlock Jr.' was far ahead of its time. His physical comedy is nothing short of spectacular. He falls directly on his head during a banana peel gag, runs along the top of a moving train, and dives through a drum and instantly changes costumes. It's amazing to watch Keaton literally throw himself headfirst into the work.
What Makes It Timeless?
Despite its being made in 1924, the combination of Keaton's lovable dreamer character and his outstanding comedic timing allows 'Sherlock Jr.' to remain hilarious to this day. The way in which Keaton uses gesture and facial expression to communicate the smaller, more clever jokes provides no shortage of laughter. The film may employ grand pratfalls and stunts, but it relies on character-driven, empathetic humor and therefore manages to outshine even some modern comedies that tend to replace these qualities with dick and fart jokes that never would have passed the National Board of Review in 1924. There are also effects in 'Sherlock Jr.' that boggle the mind. The dream sequence wherein Keaton travels through a movie screen and then is transported to a number of different locales in rapid succession is especially incredible and aides in the film's never feeling dated.
This will surely not be the last Buster Keaton film to be featured here. The man is a genius in every sense and it is an absolute thrill to watch him work. The fact that his character, the poor schlub who can't catch a break and dreams of rising above his lot in life, is so universally identifiable and keeps the material fresh. This blueprint for the protagonist is still used in comedies to this day. It's also impossible not to appreciate the whimsical avenues by which this story is told. As a movie fan, you have to appreciate Keaton's character and how he garners all his romantic techniques from the images flickering on the screen.