A film projectionist (Buster Keaton) who is studying to be a detective puts his skills to work after being accused of stealing the watch of his girlfriendís father. While at work watching a film the projectionist dreams he is the character in the detective story on the screen. Meanwhile, his girl is determined to find out who framed the young man.
Joseph Frank ďBusterĒ Keaton was born into a vaudeville family. At the age of three Keaton took the stage with his parents. Keaton grew up being literally thrown around the stage, into the audience or in the orchestra pit for their comedy act. He noticed if he didnít smile they got bigger laughs, so he developed his deadpan expression. In 1917 when Keaton was 22, he met Roscoe ďFattyĒ Arbuckle at the Talmadge Studios, in New York City, where Arbuckle worked for Joseph M. Schenck. Keaton asked to borrow one of the film cameras, so he could understand how it worked. He dismantled it and then put it back together once he figured out the mechanics of the camera. He returned the camera to Arbuckle and asked for a job. His first film was The Butcher Boy (1917). Keaton co-starred, was assistant director and was the gag man for the film.
Keatonís film career was off and running. Joseph M. Schenck soon gave Keaton his own production unit, Buster Keaton Comedies. Keaton began to make his own successful shorts that lead him to full length features. Keatonís silent films always feature wonderful sight gags and technical trickery. He was one of the most technically adept directors of the silent era. Keaton was innovative with the film camera. Iím sure not many directors took the film camera apart and could reassemble it, just so they could understand the mechanics of how it worked. This is evident in all of Keatonís films and Sherlock, Jr has several highlights of movie magic being created.
By the time Keaton made Sherlock Jr., he had directed 22 features and shorts. In three years he would direct The General (1927) which is thought to be his masterpiece. All of his films are brilliantly imaginative and funny. In each project you can see Keatonís progress as filmmaker. Gags become more surreal and stunts bigger, but he never forgets the comedy within the story. Sherlock, Jr. is only 44 minutes in length and Keaton packs in more laughs, story and originality than any filmmaker alive today. He takes a simple story of a young man with aspirations of being a detective, who wants to impress his girl with a $4.00 box of candy (but can only afford $ 1.00 and he changes the price to $4.00) and a tiny engagement ring and explores the power of our subconscious through dreaming.
We first see Keaton being interrupted by the movie theatre owner, while reading a book entitled ďHow to Become a Detective.Ē He only has enough money to buy his sweetheart (Kathryn McGuire) a dollar box of candy. He changes the price to $4.00 to impress her. He also gives her a tiny diamond engagement ring and uses a magnifying glass for her to see it. Another suitor (Ward Crane, The Villain) sees them together and steals McGuireís fatherís watch to buy her the huge $4.00 box of candy. When her father notices his watch is missing, Keaton takes charge of the case and suggests searching everyone. His rival puts the pawn ticket into Keatonís pocket. He is blamed and told to leave. Undaunted, Keaton shadows Crane to the train station. Crane notices and locks Keaton in a train car. Keaton escapes through the roof of the car and rides the water pipe down and is doused. The force of the water threw Keaton onto the train rails where he fractured his neck in real life and he didnít know the extent of the injury until many years later. He went home that night with a splitting headache, took aspirin and went to bed and reported to work the next day. Wow!
Keaton returns to work and starts the feature Hearts and Pearls. The movie involves a stolen pearl necklace. In the interim, McGuire goes to the pawnbroker for a description of the man who sold the watch and finds the true thief. Keaton falls asleep while watching the film. He replaces all the characters in the film with the people he knows and goes to join them on the screen. As he tries to join them on screen,the action changes rapidly dropping Keaton into many different locations: the front door of the house, the garden, onto a cliff, to the ocean, a lionís den, in front of a train and back to the houseís garden. Keatonís cameraman Byron Houck used surveying instruments to position Keaton and the camera at the exact distances and positions for continuity as the scenes changes location.
Keaton is now introduced as the world greatest detective, Sherlock, Jr. The villains set up booby traps, an exploding pool ball and poison drinks, but Sherlock, Jr. is always one step ahead of them. Sherlock, Jr. and his trusty assistant Gillette (character was named after William Gillette, an actor who played Sherlock Holmes on stage) follow Crane to his hide out. Gillette has equipment to help Sherlock escape if heís in trouble. Sherlock allows himself to be caught by Crane and his thugs. Heís informed that the girl has been kidnapped, so he grabs the pearls and dives out the window and is now dressed as an old lady. The thugs run past him, but soon catch on. Keaton does some spectacular sight gags and stunts that deify description. One needs to see them to truly enjoy them.
Sherlock runs off with the pearls and is pulled over by Gillette dressed as a motorcycle cop. Sherlock jumps on the handle bars and they are off. Gillette is flipped off the bike when he hits a huge pothole and Sherlock has no idea that no one is driving. Here is another wonderful highlight of sight gags, near misses and precisely timed stunts that show Keatonís genius. Keaton barely beating a speeding train is an amazing sight. Sherlock, Jr. saves the girl, the pearls and vanquishes the villains. Keaton awakes to find his girl explaining their mistake. Keaton watches the film for guidance and imitates much of the action, but is flummoxed when the movie flash forwards showing the couple with twins.
Keatonís surreal image of walking into the film screen to join the action has been copied by Woody Allenís Purple Rose of Cairo and The Last Action Hero. Even in 1924 film had the power to fuel our imaginations and ignite our fantasies. I have wished many times to walk onto the screen and join my favorite actors into the beautiful and sometime scary domain they inhabit. Keaton knew of the seductive power that dreams hold. An audience may not get to experience all that they see on the screen, but they can be the hero/heroine of they own story in their mind. Keatonís characters were the every man or woman just trying to get along in life. Keatonís persona was a sweet ordinary person who could be an extraordinary physical and subtle comic genius.