This week I’m looking at a film from 1924 called Sherlock Jr. It stars (and was directed by) Buster Keaton. If you’re thinking that movies this old maybe won’t be for you, Buster Keaton is a great place to start. This particular movie is only about 45 minutes long, so it’s a lot easier to swallow than, say, one of D.W. Griffith’s 3-hour, sweeping epics. And, like the works of Charlie Chaplin, the movie is funny. It’s perhaps not quite as funny as some Chaplin films I’ve seen, but it definitely gets the job done.
When looking at early silent movies, comparisons between Chaplin and Keaton are pretty much unavoidable. Chaplin seems to have stayed more in the public’s memory over the years. Most people, even if they haven’t seen a Chaplin film, can tell you who he was. I don’t know for certain why that is, but part of it probably has to do with Chaplin’s recurring “tramp” character.
I like both actors. As I said, I think Chaplin’s movies are a little funnier. The thing with Keaton is that his movies add a totally different element: stunts. He’s not shy about putting himself at great personal risk for the sake of a movie. He actually ended up with a fractured neck after one of the stunts in Sherlock Jr. (the take in which he sustains this injury appears in the finished film).
All that aside, on to the movie in question. The plot is fairly straightforward, although dream sequences play a major role. Also present in most scenes are heavy doses of dramatic irony. There are many, many sequences where the audience has knowledge that the characters don’t. There’s a lengthy scene where the villains of the film have set several booby traps for Keaton, and he is of course oblivious to them. Each time he seems destined to blunder right to his doom, he is completely straight-faced. The reactions from the villains really help to sell these sequences.
Special effects are also of great importance in Sherlock Jr. Considering the film’s age, these are surprisingly convincing, even today. A sequence where Keaton’s character imagines himself walking through the screen at a movie theatre to become a part of the movie itself is particularly nice. At certain points, the action around Keaton changes, while his character stays in the same spot. It’s actually really impressive.
Finally, this movie has one of my favourite “man slipping on a banana peel jokes” in history. Like Chaplin, Keaton grew up as a vaudeville performer. He’s got a knack for physical comedy and it definitely shows in Sherlock Jr.