Film Recommendation of the Day 2/08: Sherlock Jr. (1924)

Even in the decades of cinema’s birth there were already some filmmakers who wished to highlight the beauty and uniqueness of the art that was filmmaking, such as the Russian minimalist Dziga Vertov with his documentary film Man with a Movie Camera (1929). But the most revered and delightful of the early love note dedications to the realm of cinema was Buster Keaton’s tour de force comic masterpiece Sherlock Jr., which comes a close second in technical mastery as his most remembered film The General (1926). And while The General demonstrated Keaton’s strengths for comedic timing, Sherlock Jr. was a surrealist film that tossed away the chains of limitations in the filmmaking world by opening the scope and imagination of cinematic presentation. Sherlock Jr. is a dazzingly original film containing fantastic uses of special effects through the use of camera placements manipulating audience perspective that showcases Buster Keaton’s evolution from vaudevellian entertainer into a precise film technician.

The advanced use of camera techniques comes to a paradoxical halt when compared to the slightly simplistic storyline involving a hapless movie projectionist fantasizing about being a detective. But this simplistic reality that inevitably propels our protagonist into an imaginary plain of existence displays the very nature of how cinema is a natural paradox; a sort of “through the looking glass” scenario where our perceptions of reality compete with actual reality. From the marvelous and seamless transition the projectionist makes from real world into the film world to the equally incredible editing transitions from one location to the next (see clip for example), Buster Keaton was able to expand our expectations and ability far beyond previous cinema endeavors on par with the full blown surrealist drama The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). In essence, Sherlock Jr. is one of the earliest cinema experiments to examine how film can bring to life our dreams. However, it might be more accurate to say that it is our dreams that bring to life our films.

Buster Keaton was unfortunately overshadowed by his silent counterpart Charlie Chaplin through the silent era despite Keaton’s abilities to be rather more diverse and practical than Chaplin’s pedestrian film style. Once the era of the talking film made silent pictures obsolete Keaton made a rather quick and long lasting transition as an actor and writer in the film industry, even contributing to the Marx Brothers’ films A Night at the Opera (1935) and Go West (1940). His obvious writing wit matched extremely well with his physical vaudevillian abilities that gave all of his films, especially Sherlock Jr., a charming texture that make them relevant and enjoyable even today. That texture gives us not only a sympathetic, even naive, protagonist to care for but also a digestible silliness among realistic scenarios that ignited a whole slew of comedies in the talking era inspiring such directors as Ernst Lubitsch (Trouble in Paradise, Shop Around the Corner) and especially Preston Sturges (Sullivan’s Travels, The Lady Eve).

Buster Keaton is a star that has been copied and admired throughout cinematic history with such post-Keaton comedians especially in the work of Peter Sellers but has even been personally regarded by the likes of Jackie Chan as an influence. Sherlock Jr. displays the greatest of Keaton’s strengths as a filmmaker and physical comedian and has been a highly regarded comedic masterpiece that has been referenced many times over with one drastically obvious homage in Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo. It is a film that is short in length but full in spirit that is certain to put a smile on your face.

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  1. […] Keaton is unrecognizable in this disguise! Image: Generation Film […]



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