Friday, October 19, 2018

Short Take: Sherlock, Jr.

The silent comedy Sherlock, Jr. features actor-director Buster Keaton at his most magical. Keaton plays a movie projectionist with ambitions of becoming a detective. He's also in love with a local girl (Kathryn McGuire) whom he wants to marry. The latter hope is seemingly dashed after a rival suitor (Ward Crane) frames him for the theft of her father's pocket watch. Banished from her home, he returns to work, and falls asleep after starting up the night's picture. He dreams the girl, the rival, the father, and so forth have assumed the identities of the film's characters, and the rival has stolen a valuable family necklace. The projectionist then enters the film to become Sherlock, Jr., the world's greatest detective, to solve the crime. The dream sequence, which takes up half the film's 44-minute running time, is as visually astonishing as films get. When the projectionist first enters the movie-within-the-movie, he confronts and interacts with a series of shifting tableaux. The shifts and action are so immaculately staged and timed that they appear to be occurring in a single unbroken shot. The chase that caps the dream sequence may be the most dizzingly inventive and sleekly executed piece of extended slapstick ever. It begins on foot, with Sherlock escaping the villain's lair by jumping through a dress box, after which he's disguised in the clothing it contained, and then by jumping into an open suitcase, at which point he (briefly) disappears. Things continue with Sherlock riding the handlebars of a moving though largely driverless motorcycle, and then into a car with the girl, with pitfall after pitfall after pitfall narrowly and at times fantastically avoided. One can hardly believe one is seeing what is on the screen. Keaton sets a standard only the finest comedy and action filmmakers have approached, much less achieved. The film's scenario was written by Clyde Bruckman, Jean Havez, and Joseph A. Mitchell. Byron Houck and Elgin Lessley provided the cinematography. Keaton is credited with the masterful editing.