Sherlock Jr. August 10, 2016
I can barely run for ten minutes straight without breaking into a miserable sweat. Buster Keaton, in contrast, could run for ten hours straight and still be dry as an autumn leaf. So long as our amusement remains high enough to light his comedic fires, anything is possible. As one of comedy’s utmost pioneering figures, an aficionado of physical dares and frenetic sight gags, there’s an agelessness, and an undying vitality, to be found in Keaton’s finest works. Though his heyday was at its most powerful long before John Wayne made his film debut and long before Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers ever took their first steps together, his best efforts don’t feel as if they’re nearly a century old. Innovative and spryly funny, they’re cultural relics that also play as if they were made yesterday.
Such is the case with 1924’s faultless Sherlock Jr., among Keaton’s greatest headliners and among the funniest silent comedies ever produced. Not a single moment is wasted during its speedy forty-five minutes; it’s an explosion of Keaton’s special inflictions of deadpan expression and adrenaline laced (and gaspingly humorous) stunt work. While not an unparalleled success upon release — audiences were too smitten with the regal beauty of Rudolf Valentino and Pola Negri to flock to Keaton’s astounding product obsessively — Sherlock Jr.’s rep has, understandably, only amassed in its respectability with the sands of time.
In the picture, Keaton, who also directs, stars as an unnamed theater projectionist clamoring to win the heart of a brunette society girl (Kathryn McGuire) with a sweet disposition. Having little to his name, The Projectionist has, regardless of his background, mostly been successful in courtship, using his everyman charm to make up for the visible class differences between him and his lady.
But problems arise when a handsome scoundrel (Ward Crane) threatens to steal The Girl away from our hero. A snaky bastard he is: He’s not in love with our leading lady — just her status — and is a scheming low-life with a weakness for pawning. Early in the movie does he steal The Girl’s father’s (Joe Keaton) pocket watch and pin the blame on The Projectionist.
The rest of Sherlock Jr. finds Keaton’s character doing everything he can to clear his name and unmask his rival for what he truly is. But the film hardly seems to be remembered for its inconsequential, “real-world” romance; what it’s remembered for, after some ninety-two years of notoriety, is its dream sequence, which takes up most of Sherlock Jr.’s length. In it, Keaton is sucked into the world of the movie he’s projecting, which is a mystery not unlike the one he’s experiencing currently. But he’s propelled from passivity to leading man status, given the confidence of the Detective Holmes he’s emulating. That’s when the movie goes from cutesy rom-com to daring comedy — the action involves a gag featuring an exploding billiards ball and an insane (especially for its time) motorcycle chase — and, in the process, we metamorphose into a speechless member audience instead of an acquiescent one.
And there’s an elatedness that comes along with being thrilled by a comedy, and Sherlock Jr. holds up. Part of me wants it to be longer than forty-five minutes, considering just how much of a lovable crowd-pleaser it is. But it also seems about right for a picture that moves faster than the speed of light. To stretch its running time would diminish the tightly wound perfection of Keaton’s style. He suffered as a result of its magnificence — he served as stunt double for every single one of his actors and was afflicted with the aftereffects of his injuries for years — but Sherlock Jr., so awe-inspiring, is art worth suffering for. A