When I first learned about Sherlock Jr. (1924, viewable here), my expectations weren’t that high. I knew little about Buster Keaton, and still wondered how anyone could challenge Chaplin’s mastery of silent pathos and comedy. (Little did I know then that Keaton and Chaplin aren’t comparable so much in form or content, but in the levels of innovation they brought to their work.) The idea of a projectionist entering into a film seemed appealing enough, but nothing too radical. Then I finally saw the film, let it stew around my head, saw it again, and again, and realized that it’s a work of concentrated comic perfection.
I grant that Sherlock Jr. doesn’t quite have the well-developed, back-and-forth narrative of The General, which sustains Keaton’s audacious acrobatics for longer and to greater purpose, but I still feel it’s probably the best showcase for his talents. Buster Keaton’s trademark stunts put every other example of choreographed mayhem to shame; they’re comparable to Busby Berkeley’s dance routines of the ’30s in their uniqueness, surreal logic, and aestheticization of human physicality, but they substitute hilarity for eroticism. And nowhere in Keaton’s body of work are they crammed together as effectively and syllogistically as in Sherlock Jr., where the entire film unfolds like the best-constructed line of dominoes in film history.
The plot’s pretty simple: Keaton plays his usual nameless, stolid sad sack character, trying to win a girl’s love. He works as a projectionist, but aspires to be a detective (hence the title). However, through a series of unfortuitous clues, his scuzzy rival frames him for the theft of a watch, and he retires to the projection booth, defeated. While the girl discovers his innocence, he daydreams himself into the film-within-a-film, and a parallel secondary story takes place. Eventually he awakes, and finds the girl has realized her mistake, leading to one of Keaton’s great, ironic happy endings.
Within this framework, Keaton unleashes his bottomless bag of tricks – bottomless because his resources are the physical laws of the universe. Anyone can take a fall, but Keaton takes falls that defy our beliefs and expectations. He also roots his physical comedy in a romantic plot filled with its own pitfalls, whether they’re jokes at the expense of his protagonist, the girl, her idle rich father, or the rival, who’s depicted as a mustache-twirling cad.
I view the romances in Keaton’s films as somewhat cynical, as flat and unsentimental as the look on his face. In this film, for example, the girl seems willing to be bought off with fancy gifts, and a similar love-for-sale ethic pervades his earlier film Three Ages, which sees competition for mates – and the subsequent mating – as a constant of human nature. Maybe an argument could be made that the romantic urges of his protagonists are as obligatory as their obedience to gravity; after all, romances are omnipresent in his films, but they’re never really dwelled upon for their own sakes. It’s one more curious aspect of his filmography that shows how different he was, and how much he enjoyed sticking a little satirical thorn into the side of formula.
But really, the subtly offbeat romance is just the springboard off which Keaton launches all kinds of verbal, visual, and situational humor: his attempt to scrounge up a few dollars in the movie theater’s rubbish pile, and later his investigation into the watch’s disappearance, when his ultraliteral interpretation of a guidebook’s injunction to “Shadow your man closely” leads to a sequence of prolonged absurdity. This scene, in which Keaton tails his rival very closely, lets him toy with our perception of film, and question whether they’re seeing it in two or three dimensions. (He returns to this trick with even greater effect during the film’s climactic chase.) It also justifies some of his beloved train-based physical comedy (again, see The General).
This segment constitutes a good demonstration of Keaton’s prowess at staging and executing barely believable chains of cause and effect, yet in reality, it’s just a precursor to the meat of the film, which takes place in its protagonist’s imagination. As he projects himself into a stereotypical Perils of Pauline-esque silent melodrama, Keaton engages in some meta-cinematic playfulness; it doesn’t really have a spot in the film’s narrative, but it’s so cleverly staged that it ceases to matter. It rewrites the film’s ground rules: henceforth, this is not a normal comedy. Things will work the way Buster wants them to.
The protagonist takes up his place as “the crime-crushing criminologist – SHERLOCK JR.,” idealizing himself as suave and authoritative, effortlessly outsmarting a villainous pair of pearl thieves. After a pool game that riffs on the very concept of suspense, the film cuts to the next morning, and the remainder is pretty much one long, brilliant, loving exercise in concrete physics. This is the substance of Buster’s greatness, whether we’re talking about this film, or his other masterpieces like The General or Cops: his ability as a filmmaker to construct ridiculous master plans that would make Rube Goldberg balk, and then as an actor to endure them without flinching.
Watching the last third of Sherlock Jr. is both totally enjoyable on visceral and intellectual levels: you’re overwhelmed both by what you see happening, and by any attempt to fully process it, leading inevitably to the question, “How did he do that?” Ashley and I (and anyone else we’ve asked about it) are still completely baffled by a scene in which Keaton appears to leap through his assistant, into a wall. Sources suggest it’s accomplished via something called a “vampire trap” (from its use in a play version of Polidori’s The Vampire), but this doesn’t explain anything.
Kubrick once said that “if it can be written, or thought, it can be filmed”; I’m not sure where Buster Keaton falls on that spectrum. I’m not sure whether his art is closer to trompe l’oeil painting, or to poetry, or to architecture. He’s a beautiful anomaly. The chase scene in Sherlock Jr. seems to espouse a belief in overarching fate, in Newtonian determinism, in the happy conjunction of man’s actions and the physical laws. In the amusement of the gods, to whom we are “like flies to wanton boys,” as Shakespeare’s Gloucester would put it.
I’m not sure which of these viewpoints Keaton would actually agree with, but some blind faith must be in his unexpressive face as he careens along on the handlebars of a motorcycle without a driver – some willingness to leap before he looks. He injured himself countless times, risked life and limb, put himself in severe physical jeopardy in order to produce visual art with the power to make us laugh. To me, that’s saintly – putting yourself on the chopping block to benefit the rest of humanity.
When I watch the climax to Sherlock Jr., my mind keeps coming back to geometry: the circles, the lines, the angles that come together so flawlessly to yield these movements, where Buster is just one little piece in a huge, dynamic system. His influence has been felt everywhere in physical comedy (perhaps most resonantly in Roadrunner and Coyote), but never equaled. He just had his peerless skill, precision, and the bravura necessary to pull it all off. I’ve seen Sherlock Jr. several times (after all, it’s less than an hour long), and I hope to see it many, many more. With its ageless humor, tightly-packed inventiveness, and near-perfect execution, Sherlock Jr. is one of my favorite movies.