Thursday, July 28, 2011

Stubs - Sherlock, Jr.

SHERLOCK, JR. (1924) Starring: Buster Keaton, Kathryn McGuire, Joe Keaton, Erwin Connelly, Ward Crane, Ford West. Directed by Buster Keaton. Written by Jean Havez, Joseph Mitchell and Clyde Bruckman. Produced by Joseph M. Schenck Run Time: 44 minutes, Black and White. U.S. Silent, Comedy

This was perhaps the hardest film to pick. Not the position on the list, but I wanted to include one Buster Keaton title and choosing one, just one, is very hard. Like his contemporary, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton made a successful transition from stage, vaudeville, to screen. While Buster’s rise took a little longer and his stay at the top was shorter, Keaton is every bit his equal. Some would even say that Keaton was a better filmmaker.

Having seen every short Keaton made from ONE WEEK (1920) to THE LOVE NEST (1923) and every feature from THE SAPHEAD (1920) to THE CAMERAMAN (1928), it is hard to find a bad film in the bunch and hard not to find several gems. That’s nineteen shorts and twelve features in eight years. Now since this is supposed to be a list of features, that eliminates the shorts and leaves the features. In that collection of titles are such classics as THE GENERAL (1926), STEAMBOAT BILL JR. (1928) and SEVEN CHANCES (1925). So why pick SHERLOCK JR over these?

To begin with I have it on good authority that Keaton himself was tired of THE GENERAL. Seems whenever they wanted to pay tribute to him, they would trot out this film. STEAMBOAT BILL JR. has some truly unbelievable scenes of Keaton being pushed and pulled through falling buildings and scenery as a major windstorm hits, you get a shorter version of that in such shorts as ONE WEEK. And SEVEN CHANCES has one of the great chase scenes of all time, as Keaton has to outrun a city worth of would-be-brides and then a hillside of rolling rocks and boulders, but while funny it isn’t really groundbreaking.

And while all of these are great films, none of them are quite as inventive as SHERLOCK, JR. Now I will admit that the first time I saw this film was during my doctoral studies at U.S.C., the one that was more esoteric B.S. than actual history. I’m sure the reason we were shown this particular film to illustrate way of reading films using someone like Karl Jung or Jacques Lacan’s theories. But despite that, I really love this film.

The plot is rather simple: Keaton plays the projectionist and janitor at a movie theater who is studying to be a detective. He falls in love with a girl (Kathryn McGuire). One day he is accused of stealing the girlfriend father’s watch. Falling asleep on the job, Keaton dreams that he is a Sherlock Holmes-type detective and solving a case of who stole a pearl necklace.

But what separates this film from the other Keaton and any other film out there is a sequence where in it appears that Keaton steps into a movie and once in the film the setting changes taking his character from drawing room, to front steps to garden bench to busy street to mountain cliff in rapid fashion. This early special effect required precision in all phases of filmmaking and was apparently achieved by using surveyor’s tools to place the actor and the camera. The result is one of the most imaginative and surreal sequences ever put to celluloid.

Watching this film is to watch one of the great comedic geniuses at his creative best. No one is funnier and no one is more creative than Buster Keaton when he had total control of his work. And this film is one of his best. SHERLOCK, JR. should be considered a gateway film into the work of one of the great silent film comedians.

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