Buster Keaton's comic masterpiece SHERLOCK JR. is not only one of the funniest movies of all time, filled with staggering stunts, amazing sight gags, and mind-boggling cinematic tricks, but it's also a brilliant meditation on the nature of the film medium itself, perhaps the best ever made.
A movie projectionist (Buster Keaton), who's studying to be a detective by reading a how-to book, wants to buy an expensive box of candy for his girlfriend, but only has one dollar, so he buys a cheap box and changes the number one to a four on the box. He goes to her house and gives her the candy, then his rival (Ward Crane) sneaks into the house and steals her father's pocket watch. He pawns the watch and buys a huge box of candy, then returns to the house and gives it to the girl. When her father comes home and discovers his watch missing, the projectionist pulls out his how-to manual and searches everybody. The rival slips his pawn ticket into the projectionist's pocket and when it's found, along with the "four-dollar" mark on the candy box, the father kicks the projectionist out and tells him never to return. He leaves, but closely follows the rival home, almost getting run over by a train, then being knocked off a watertank by a huge gusher. The girl goes to the pawnshop with the ticket and asks the owner to describe the man who sold him the watch, and as he does, the rival walks by and the owner tells her it was him.
Back at the movie theater, the projectionist starts the film, entitled "Hearts & Pearls, or The Lounge Lizard's Lost Love--in Five Acts." He then falls asleep, but a double image of himself wakes up and looks out at the movie, where the elegantly dressed man and woman onscreen dissolve into his rival and his girl. He walks down to the theater seats and climbs up onto the stage, then runs right into the screen and grabs the rival, who throws him back into the seats. He sneaks back into the picture, but the locations keep changing: steps become a bench, which turns into a street, which is transformed into a mountain, which turns into a lion's den, which turns into a desert, which turns into an ocean, then finally into a snowdrift. The father in the movie discovers his pearls are missing and he sends for the world's greatest detective, Sherlock Jr. When the crime-crushing criminologist arrives, the villain and his henchman try various ways to kill him, including poison and an exploding billiard ball, but Sherlock manages to escape unscathed.
The next day, Sherlock Jr. leaves his house, where the front door is a giant safe, and he tails the villain, jumping off a roof and grabbing a railroad crossing sign, which safely lands him in the villain's car. At the villain's hideout, Sherlock's assistant, who has been hiding in the back of the car, pulls out a round suitcase containing a woman's dress and Sherlock places it on the outside window. The crooks see Sherlock and drag him inside, but he manages to grab the pearls and dives through the window and into the suitcase, emerging outside dressed as a little old lady. The crooks chase him into an alley, but he dives into another suitcase and disappears, then jumps onto the handlebars of a motorcycle and rides through traffic, across a collapsed bridge and in front of a train, finally smashing into a shack and flying through a window where his girl is being held captive. He rescues her, and they speed away in a car, but the chassis falls off and the top of the car goes into a lake and sinks.
Back in the theater, the projectionist wakes up, and his girl arrives to tell him she knows he didn't steal the watch. He looks at the movie screen and nervously imitates the hero's actions, first grabbing the girl's hands, then kissing her, then slipping a ring on her finger. Finally, the hero is seen rocking two babies on his lap, and the dumbfounded projectionist scratches his head as the screen fades to black.
Made in 1924, SHERLOCK JR. came at a transition point in Keaton's career--one year after he had stopped making two-reel shorts, and was concentrating exclusively on longer features, as were virtually all of the other major silent comedians. Keaton lamented the passing of two-reelers by observing that "Once we started into features, we had to stop doing impossible things. We had to make an audience believe our story," but in SHERLOCK JR., he was able to synthesize the best aspects of the two formats and make what is essentially a five-reel short, or a mini-feature. Keaton excelled at doing impossible things, and his sight gags and death-defying stunts are extraordinary not only for their ingeniousness, but for their flawless execution, making complex physical feats look completely effortless. The most astonishing is undoubtedly when Buster dives into the suitcase to escape the crooks and comes out wearing a dress. The set of the crooks' hideout was built without a side wall, so that the audience could see that Buster was really doing the stunt himself and not using a double. Some of the numerous other incredible bits include the scene where he flies into the back of the
villain's car by holding onto the railroad sign, and when he's careening down a mountain road and over a broken bridge on the handlebars of a motorcycle, not realizing the driver fell off miles ago. These stunts are always filmed in uninterrupted long takes, to prove that there's no editing or camera tricks involved. Of course, this could
invariably lead to serious injury. In the scene where Buster grabs onto the watertower spout and is knocked down to the train tracks by the force of the rushing water, he actually broke his neck, but didn't find out about it until a decade later during a physical examination! Yet, in addition to his daredevil stunts, Keaton was also a master of subtlety, able to raise gales of laughter with his amazing physical grace and dexterity, such as in the pool-playing scene, and with minute changes of facial expression, as in the scene where he's trying to romance his girl and his rival keeps
intruding, or when he's sweeping up outside the theater and people keep coming up to him claiming they lost a dollar and he asks them to describe it.
SHERLOCK JR. is also an extraordinary study of film and its intrinsic qualities of illusion and fantasy. When Buster walks into the screen and becomes a participant in the movie, the film transcends its genre and becomes a profound work of art. Although Buster would never admit to having any artistic or intellectual pretensions, he instinctively understood the dreamlike aspects of the medium, with its ability to instantly change locales and transform characters through a single cut or a dissolve. The actual effect of him walking into the screen is nothing less than astounding, seamlessly accomplished and impossible to detect. Even a frame-by-frame inspection of the scene doesn't reveal how it was done. Of course, the basic premise of SHERLOCK JR. was used by Woody Allen for THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO (1985), albeit in reverse, and it was copied for Arnold Schwarzenegger's disastrous LAST ACTION HERO (1993) as well, but it was also a major influence on surrealists like Rene Clair, who compared it to Pirandello, and Luis Bunuel, as well as numerous other serious filmmakers, opening up possibilities of what can be achieved by the magic lantern known as the cinema.
Cast & Details See all »
- Rating: NR
- Review: Buster Keaton's comic masterpiece SHERLOCK JR. is not only one of the funniest movies of all time, filled with staggering stunts, amazing sight gags, and mind-boggling cinematic tricks, but it's also a brilliant meditation on the nature of the film medium… (more)