From 1919 until about 1923, he made short films. Among the Keaton shorts are comic masterpieces like One Week and The Scarecrow, and even the lesser ones, like The Frozen North or The Playhouse, are alive with creative invention. Starting in 1923, Buster moved on to features, and his 1926 Civil War comedy The General is often mentioned as one of the greatest films ever made. But between the shorts and the features, Buster produced his best work. Longer than a typical two reel short, but retaining the “anything can happen” freedom of the two-reelers, it is a 44-minute helping of bliss called Sherlock Jr.
It’s my favorite movie. In future installments of this feature, I’ll write about other movies I love, but none of them can quite measure up to this one. Perhaps there are more technically accomplished films, or more meaningful films, or more important films, but no other movie fills me with the pure joy of Sherlock Jr. If aliens come to earth and demand to know what the big fucking deal is with these motion picture things, why everyone thinks they’re so great, this is the movie we should show them. The aliens will understand.
Describing the plot is probably pointless, but I’ll give it a shot. As the film opens, Buster is working at a movie house. The first shot sees him sitting in the empty theater, reading a book pithily titled “How to Be a Detective.” Before long, the boss walks in and tells Buster to get to work. Buster sweeps up the floor, finds a few dollars in with the trash, and determines to walk down the street and buy an expensive $3 box of chocolates for the girl he likes. Before he gets that far, hilarity ensues as a parade of people suddenly appear looking for their lost dollars. Left with only the buck he started out with, Buster buys a cheap box of chocolates and forges a more expensive price on the back. At the house of his girl, Buster encounters his rival, referred to only as “the local sheik,” who is pretty much every conceited prick you’ve ever met – the kind of man who should have been lain across a train track at birth, but will probably die peacefully in bed at age 92 surrounded by much younger women. The Sheik goes to the girl’s house, steals her father’s watch and frames Buster for it, getting Buster kicked out of the house.
Buster suspects Sheiky of fucking him over, and uses his fledgling sleuthing skills to try and clear his name, but he gets nowhere. Defeated, he goes back to work. While projecting the afternoon feature, Buster falls asleep and dreams himself into the movie. He watches as the characters in the film turn into the people from his life – the girl, her father, the sheik, even his boss at the theater. Fascinated, and outraged when the on-screen version of the sheik steals a string of pearls, Buster walks down into the theater and marches right through the screen, into the movie. Once there, he assumes the character of Sherlock Jr., the world’s greatest detective, charged by the on-screen version of his girl’s father with finding the stolen pearls. Following a series of hilarious and stunning sight-gags and stunts, Sherlock Jr. solves the case and gets the girl, just as Buster wakes up to reality. While he’s been dreaming, the girl has figured everything out for herself about who stole her father’s watch, and shows up at the theater to tell Buster that all is forgiven.
I told you it was pointless. The plot doesn’t do this movie justice because it doesn’t hang on the plot; it hangs on Buster Keaton’s gift for creating a sense of boundless possibility. Things really get surreal once he falls asleep, but from start to finish the film has a dreamlike quality. But it’s a very tight dream, not a second wasted. Here we get the essence of Keaton’s genius, distilled and pure. It’s like Buster Keaton moonshine.
The popular perception of Keaton (such as it is) usually revolves around his insane stunts. Jackie Chan cites him as a major influence, and the similarities are obvious. In Steamboat Bill Jr., Buster allows the façade of a house to fall over him, only a well-placed open window saving him from behind crushed. This was no visual effect – they actually built a full-size wall that weighed about 10,000 pounds, and on cue they dropped it over Buster. A few inches to the left, he would have been flatter than his fucking porkpie hat. Amazing, to be sure, but the great thing about Sherlock Jr. is that it relies on skill and cleverness, not jaw-dropping feats. Buster’s comedy here, more than in any of his other feature work, relies on exquisite timing. My favorite bit is when the villains lay a trap for Sherlock Jr. by inviting him to shoot pool after they have secretly replaced the 13 ball with an explosive. The scene that follows suggests that Buster could have taught Mike Massey a thing or two.
Fuck, but I could go on and on! The moment when Buster stands up and walks into the movie is as close to real magic as I have ever seen in a film. It is so perfect and unpretentious – no artsy shot, no phony melodrama – Buster just stands up and marches right into the screen as if he does it every day. Wonderful.
If you have not seen this movie, see it. It’s available on Amazon, on a great DVD that also includes Buster’s classic Our Hospitality. Or, if you have $200 to drop, you can get the entire Art of Buster Keaton boxed set, with all of Keaton’s silent features and solo silent shorts. Trust me, it is the best two hundred bucks you’ll ever invest in your movie collection. I love to show Sherlock Jr. to friends who’ve never seen it. It’s like handing out sunshine. Two years ago I saw it on the big screen for the first time, on a double feature with One Week at the Weinberg Center in Frederick, a beautifully restored old 1920s movie palace, with the original Wurlitzer organ still installed. I sat in the dark, in a theater filled with laughing people, and for 44 minutes I was in heaven.