When I was just learning about silent comedy I would have said that it started and ended with Charlie Chaplin no questions asked. And it’s true that he most certainly is a starting point, but if you want to get even a small understanding of comedy you have to look at Buster Keaton (as well as Harold Lloyd). I’m not claiming a great deal of knowledge about silent films (I still have much to see and learn), but Keaton astounded me with his prolific output during the 1920s and his physical prowess. I did not appreciate The General (1926) that much the first time around, however, by the time I got to Our Hospitality (1923), Seven Chances (1925), Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928), The Cameraman (1928), The Navigator (1924), and of course this film, I completely changed my initial evaluation.
Since Sherlock Jr. is shorter than most of his other features it’s almost like Keaton cut out all the dross and what we are left with are sequences of cinematic gold. In this story about a projectionist obsessed with being a detective, there is surprising depth and inventiveness that is still magical today. The plot really is a film within a film, starting with Sherlock Jr. trying to win over the affections of his love (Kathryn McGuire) with a box of chocolates. But his rival (Ward Crane) does the same by more shady means and pins his dastardly deed on Jr. Now our hero is banished from the house and resigns himself to his projection room where he enters into a dream-filled sleep. It mirrors the film that is playing on the screen as he enters this world as a detective and fills it with all his real-life acquaintances. The fact that the girl comes back to him at the end feels rather superfluous because we automatically assume that is the case. It’s how Keaton gets there that’s ingenious
It easy to marvel at some of the visuals as Buster Keaton literally leaves his body and walks onto the screen, shifting between an array of backdrops in a thoroughly entertaining sequence. He’s pulling crazy stunts without CGI mind you, and many of them put his life and welfare on the line. He tries his hand at pool with impressive skill and pulls off some amazing parlor tricks including a disappearing act that not only stumps the thugs pursuing him but the audience as well.
Even after reading a full breakdown of how he was able to literally vanish into thin air I’m still utterly baffled. Every time it causes me do a double take. Then, of course, there’s his wild ride on the handlebars of the motorcycle, which has some beautifully comic stunt work. It’s stuff you certainly would not want to try at home and it would be unthinkable today, but that was the brilliance of “The Great Stone Face.” He was literally willing to put his life on the line, and whereas Chaplin was adept at pulling at our heartstrings, the often emotionless Keaton does not try that. He wins us over with his resilience. In him, I find a figure of a very relatable temperament although he was more of a daredevil than I could hope (or want) to be. That just makes me respect and marvel at what he can do. If you want to see slapstick and sight gags at their zenith then take a look at Buster Keaton. Sherlock Jr. is always a good starting point.