27 October 2005
100 films: Sherlock, Jr.
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starring: Buster Keaton, Kathryn McGuire, and Erwin Connelly
written by: Clyde Bruckman, Jean C. Havez, and Joseph A. Mitchell
directed by: Buster Keaton
NR, 44 min, 1924, USA
Buster Keaton stars here as a projectionist who wishes to be a detective and as a result is unable to perform adequately in either capacity. His detective skills are limited to the contents of his "How to be a Detective" manual, which his rival uses to frame Sherlock for stealing a watch. Unable to solve the case of the missing watch, Sherlock returns to the theatre heartbroken and falls asleep on the job. But while sleeping his dreams take over, and what dreams they are. He outwits the criminals, solves the case, wins the love of his girl, but this is nothing for Sherlock, Jr., the world's greatest detective.
The story is nice, but essentially this film is on the list for the dream sequence, the type of thing that makes you sit up and go, "I had no idea anyone did that in 1924." Keaton falls asleep and his dream alter ego wakes up in a double exposure. He goes down into the audience, where the characters in the film have been replaced with Sherlock's rival and love. Sherlock then walks into the picture. In a remarkable scene, considering the time, the surroundings change from steps to a bench to a hill in the desert to the African safari to the ocean to a snow bank, only Sherlock stays constant in the frame. So when he jumps into the ocean, the edit comes while he is mid-air and he ends up planted in the snow. The whole thing is seamless, and reportedly done with nothing more than surveying equipment and the naked eye.
From there he is thrust into a mystery fraught with peril. The criminals replace the 13 ball on the pool table with a replica bomb and our hero manages to clear the entire table without touching the 13, unaware of the impending danger. Oh, but is he? Could it be possible that a detective as great as Sherlock, Jr. has noticed the switch and is using the bomb to learn the identities of the crooks? The rest of the dream runs with a clockwork precision. He dives through a window and directly into a disguise. He rides the handlebars of a motorcycle for miles after the driver has fallen off, narrowly missing crash after crash. He rescues the girl, solves the case, and is declared a hero. Meanwhile, back in reality, the girl has done some basic detective work of her own and solved the case of the watch. It's fitting that a case so simple cannot be solved by Sherlock in real life, as he has not dedicated himself fully to either of his crafts. This, after all, is a detective who must consult a checklist that begins with the instruction to search everyone in the room, and is twarted when his rival deftly plants the evidence on the detective while he is reading.
None of this is important, though. The story exists solely as a reason for Keaton to risk his life for our entertainment. Do we wonder why three people were needed to write a silent film? Do we care that the dream sequence is beyond the suspension of disbelief? Of course not. It is breathtaking and years ahead of its time. That alone is more than enough.