Sunday, March 8, 2020

Sherlock Jr. (USA,1924)

Buster Keaton is famous for his masterpieces The General (USA, 1926) and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (USA, 1928), but this cute little gem is within the same level of aforementioned films and one of most elaborate Keaton works in terms of special effects.

With a highly relatable plot of a boy in a humble existence who wished to have a more successful life, naturalistic acting with touches of romanticism (mixed with a plenty of physical gags, typical of Keaton’s work) this charming little comedy has stood well the test of time and could delight modern-day audiences without difficulty. After all, cinema always has the power of transforming lives and make people’s dreams come true.

Buster Keaton works as a projectionist who studies to be a detective too. He operates the projector in a small town movie theater and also does the cleaning. His working routine is shown in the beginning of the film, which provides a good glimpse of what 1920s movie theaters looked like. As the said in one of initial intertitles of the film “ (…) While employed as a moving picture operator in a small town theater he was also studying to be a detective”. Keaton did not always manage to multitask his profession and his studies, but he had good intentions and did the best he could.

Keaton is also in love with a pretty girl, but he has an evil rival for her affections. None of them is particularly wealthy and could not afford giving her expensive gifts, for instance. One day both suitors visit the girl in her house and suddenly her father had his pocket watch stolen. Keaton volunteers to find out who had stolen it, but he isn’t particularly skilled as a detective yet and, to make things worse, his rival gets to put the pawn ticket of the watch in his pocket. Keaton ended up being accused of the crime and is kicked out of the house of his sweetheart. 

Buster Keaton was well-known for making his own stunts, many of them quite hair-raising and risky, and he did not care if it was dangerous or not. He seldom got hurt, but this time he had hurt himself very badly - and without even knowing it. While making this film, Keaton suffered at least two accidents, one of those became very spoken about by Buster Keaton scholars. In a scene Keaton followed closely the other suitor right after being kicked out of his sweetheart’s house until both of them embark a train and -for offscreen reasons -this scene became famous. It is in this scene where the most serious accident occurred. While on top of the train he was struck by the flow of water from a water tower. The force of the water was far greater than he had anticipated, which caused him to fall off the rope straight on the train track. He got to finish this scene, which was a chase, then interrupted the filming briefly and was back to work some days later. Around eleven years later, during a routine checkup, Keaton was told by a doctor that he had broken his neck in the past based on a x ray which showed a callus had had grown over the fracture on his neck. The second accident was during a bicycle chase scene displayed close to the end of the film, which was less serious than the first accident mentioned above.

What makes Sherlock Junior a special film is that it is a film within a film with many incredible gags and techniques. The whole show begins when Keaton fall asleep as a projectionist while showing a film in the movie theater. This film within the film is called “Hearts and Pearls”. Inside his dream, as a projectionist, Keaton tries to enter the “Hearts and Pearls” film that was being shown on screen, but he was kicked off by one of the actors. Subsequently, Keaton manages to enter the screen and becomes part of the film “Hearts and Pearls” and in this film inside the film the famous detective Sherlock Jr. (Keaton himself) is called to solve a crime. The pearls had been stolen in the house of a wealthy family and the real criminals prepared a trap for Sherlock Jr. -who was called “the crime-crushing criminologist” according to one of intertitles -but the trap did not work out and the detective left the house free from any harm and solved the crime right afterwards.

Meanwhile, the girl went to the pawn brokers carrying her father’s watch and asked the salesman to describe the man who had pawned that watch. He had described her other suitor and at that moment the suitor was coincidently passing by the store and the salesman had confirmed it was that guy who had pawned the watch.

When Keaton awakened and found out that his Sherlock Junior adventure had been just a dream, the girl was in his workplace to tell him that her father had committed a serious mistake and that he found out Keaton was innocent and did not steal the watch. Then, the film “Hearts and Pearls” was still being shown on screen and while talking to the girl he realized that his life had finally got similar to the plot of the film and this time he was not dreaming. It was true, his dreams had started to come true.

The plot is easy to understand and very human. After all, many people have already dreamed with social recognition and success while performing their ordinary duties. The romanticism between Keaton and the girl is similar to 1920s Harold Lloyd’s comedies and by this time the narrative style was well-established in Hollywood, not too different from the narratives from modern-day films.