Buster Keaton immediately won me over with his most acclaimed film to date, The General; a marvellous feature that showcases his mastering of stunt work, at time dropping my jaw due to the frankness of it all. He creates tension and exhilaration through spectacle, unwilling to compromise through manipulative close-ups in moments of heightened chaos. It is in the concept of pure luck that keeps Keaton’s audience on his toes, his protagonists don’t possess the over-confidence that reaches them to safety, instead it is through the character’s ignorance or sense of restriction, he is forced to take risks that keep us gripped all the way through.
Sherlock Jr. came two years before The General, and features a far shorter running time; it follows a young movie projectionist who is also training himself to be a detective, a name was not provided. This projectionist has been courting a young girl nearby, attempting to save up money to purchase her a gift, but he has competition with a much older and sophisticated man, who also has financial problems of his own, but through his cunningness and thievery, he was able to shower this young girl with gifts. It is revealed that this older man’s recent gift for the young girl was from the pawning of the young girl’s father’s watch, which he stole earlier in the day. The projectionist, attempting to step up to the plate and prove his worth utilises his accumulated skill as a detective, only to fail through the older man’s elusiveness, planting the evidence on the young wannabe detective, turning the young girl’s whole family against him.
He returns to his position at the theatre and falls asleep while waiting for the next reel, he begins to dream the fantasy that he has long desired; to be a successful detective, solving the case of a young woman’s missing pearls, a substitute for the watch and characters that took place earlier in the day. This is where the plot begins to churn in motion, where the gags begin to become excessive and ambitious; the likes that would ultimately come to form in magnum opus a couple of years later. The stunts are remarkable from beginning to end, constantly kept me in wonder on how he achieved it with minimal errors. It allowed me to realise just how pinnacle Keaton’s crafts were, pushing the boundaries of what cinema could deliver, ultimately influencing the blockbusters of today.
The film instils this idea of the division between reality and cinema/dreaming; it highlights the melodramatics and immaculateness of our dreams and desires, and that to replicate within then medium of our reality would no doubt underwhelm as physical, emotional, and social principles are withheld. It comes to a conclusion with the young projectionist attempting to replicate the gestures on screen, in hoping that a similar positive and sentimental experience would emerge, only to be hit with the false transition of cinema’s far too ambitious and effortless rewards.
Despite all of this, Sherlock Jr. does have its faults; the overall film feels incoherent, moving from one scene to another for the sake of experiment, shifting the plot itself to the background in order to highlight its gags and stunts. There isn’t a well-grounded plot that provides continuous energy from scene to scene, hence stripping the characters from any absorbing development; which he was able to correct in The General, sorry for the constant comparison as it is the only other Keaton film that I have seen.
Sherlock Jr. is without a doubt a classic, but only for its ground-breaking effects and stunts, pushing the boundaries of cinema and Keaton himself. If only Keaton provided a stronger story to hold it all together.