Buster Keaton's Sherlock Jr: The Best Holmes Film Ever Made

Just like Guy Ritchie’s recent adaptation, Buster Keaton’s 1924 classic Sherlock Jr. bears no relation to Arthur Conan Doyle’s original series. But don’t let that put you off.
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If, for some crazy reason, you’re tempted to spend your hard-earned money on seeing Guy Ritchie’s latest offering, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (how’s that for an enticing title?), I’d advise you to reconsider. There’s only one filmic Sherlock you really need to bother with (aside from maybe The Hound of the Baskervilles), and it contains more excitement and invention in its meager 44 minutes than Ritchie’s two Sherlocks combined.

Buster Keaton, who co-wrote and -directed his first film almost 95 years ago, is the greatest physical comedian of all time. Then (and now), in the shadow of his sentimentalising contemporary Charlie Chaplin, Keaton never got the respect he deserved. In 1927, for example, he was robbed of his filmmaking independence – the right to bring his creative vision to fruition without outside interference – after his then-latest film, The General, was considered a commercial failure. Ironically, The General, more so than anything else he’s done, has come to receive pretty much unanimous praise. Orson Welles, for example, with typical theatricality, called it "the greatest comedy ever made, the greatest Civil War film ever made, and perhaps the greatest film ever made.” And yet it was the cause of Keaton’s decline – following the loss of full artistic control at United Artists, he moved to MGM in 1928 and there he was entirely at the mercy of the studio, who were unwilling to take any chances with old Buster.

Fortunately, in the years before his loss of independence, Keaton was a busy man, and from 1923 to 1928 he produced the masterpieces on which his reputation rests: Our Hospitality (1923), The Navigator (1924), Sherlock Jr. (1924), Seven Chances (1925), The General (1926), Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928), and The Cameraman (1928).

After the scene was shot, Keaton (who did all of his own stunts) had agonising headaches, and only later, in the 1930s, did he realise that whilst filming it he had actually broken his neck.

Chief among them, for me, is Sherlock Jr. At 44 minutes there isn’t so much as an unnecessary frame, and it’s really not far from being that almost impossible thing: a perfect film. The film’s hero, played by Keaton himself, is a dreamy cinema projectionist who fancies himself as a detective in the making (he’s reading a book entitled ‘How to Be a Detective’, and he is never without that detective staple: a large magnifying glass). Of course, he has an object of desire: a beautiful girl (Kathryn McGuire) whom he tries to impress. Unfortunately, he is outdone by the ‘local sheik’ (Ward Crane). He attempts to get his revenge on the villain, but he follows rule 5 of his detective book, ‘shadow your man closely’, a little too literally and it ends in failure. The failure comes with a now-famous scene, where Keaton runs across the top of a moving train, and grabs hold of a railroad water-tower that quickly empties its contents all over him, sending him crashing to the ground. After this scene was shot, Keaton (who, unlike the Jude Laws of this world, did all of his own stunts) had agonising headaches, and only later, in the 1930s, did he realise that whilst filming it he had actually broken his neck.

The projectionist, following his failure, returns to his job at the cinema and from this point the film picks up speed. At times it’s nothing short of manic. He falls asleep, and in his dream he enters the film being shown in the cinema. The primitive special effects here are amazing. There are a couple of minutes where the onscreen film cuts quickly between images, and Keaton struggles to adjust – as he’s walking, for example, the scene changes to a cliff-edge; or he falls over after he leans against a snow-covered tree and it cuts quickly to a garden lawn (it’s hard to do justice to this kind of sophisticated visual comedy in writing, though; it really needs to be seen). After these quick cuts, the onscreen film settles into a narrative, and we see the projectionist transformed: he’s now Sherlock Jr., ‘the crime-crushing criminologist’ and all-round suave hero.

It’s a stunning film, and the sophisticated visual trickery is enough to put it ahead of most others. But it’s also considered to be one of the first examples of American surrealism.

As Sherlock Jr., he’s completely unlike the clumsy projectionist. He’s also probably the best pool-player in the history of cinema, and in one great scene he manages to repeatedly avoid a bomb-rigged ball with bewildering precision. He becomes involved in a kidnapping case, concerning the same girl whom he’s in love with in real-life. As he does his best to save the girl, we’re treated to scene after scene of unbelievable visual trickery, which of course aren’t even remotely like the computer generated special effects we’ve become used to, but instead possess a real magic: we know that it’s Buster Keaton himself who’s performing these marvelous and often insane feats, and not someone prancing around in front of a green-screen.

Despite its short length, there are almost countless examples of this kind of screen magic. Take, for instance, the scene where Sherlock Jr. jumps through a window and through the dress-box (cleverly positioned by his assistant), and comes out the other side wearing the dress. There’s no camera trickery, just pure artistry. It’s literally unbelievable. You can replay the scene all you want; it never loses its brilliance. It’s the same with the extended motorbike scene. He jumps on the handlebars as his assistant does the driving, and when the latter falls off, Sherlock Jr. carries on, avoiding all manner of craziness, from speeding trains to a bridge with a hole in it (he drives over two lorries which go past just at the right moment), before realising his assistant fell off a while back. What’s even more remarkable is that Keaton himself performed the scene where the assistant falls off - he was so competent a performer that he could not only do his own stunts but also those of his co-stars.

It’s a stunning film, and the sophisticated visual trickery is enough to put it ahead of most others. But there’s more to it than that: it’s also considered to be one of the first examples of American surrealism, particularly in the scenes with the quick cuts and differing backgrounds. But even to focus on this is to miss the point. Keaton was not a self-conscious surrealist, he was first and foremost an entertainer, but not in the same way as the stars of the frivolous blockbusters that have littered our screens for decades. There is a depth to Keaton, and you can see it on his blank, mesmerising face. There’s a sadness there, but not in the heavily sentimental way of Chaplin; it’s a quiet sadness. You won’t see Keaton shed a tear, that’s for sure. He manages, in some miraculous way, to possess this quiet, enduring sadness, while at the same time being able to make us laugh and keep us drawn to the screen. There isn’t a dull moment in Sherlock Jr. – the whole thing is entrancing from beginning to end – and it possesses a greatness that transcends its short running time. It’s a film that still holds up despite being made almost 90 years ago. And so it should, because there’s really nothing else quite like it.

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