In our time, so far removed from the early days of cinema, silent films are considered obscure, art-house curios to be enjoyed by serious connoisseurs. Film aesthetics have changed so much that the films made during cinema’s infancy may now seem inaccessible for the average moviegoer. But in the late teens and early ’20s of the last century, when film was still a nascent art form, it was entertainment for the masses.
The period’s reigning genre, the slapstick comedy — the best of which today are revered as high art — were originally enjoyed by every average Joe with a spare nickel. One of the masters of this early film genre was Buster Keaton.
Of the great slapstick comedians, Buster Keaton was the funniest. Whereas many films of the time tended toward sentimentality, Keaton’s films were purely and unrelentingly funny. Today, Keaton is remembered most for his amazing stunts, which he performed himself — he even sometimes did other actors’ stunts if they were too dangerous — but he was also one of the best directors of the silent era. And in “Sherlock Jr.,” arguably his best film, Keaton is at the top of his game.
“Sherlock Jr.” stars Keaton as a film projectionist who aspires to be a great detective. The first scene shows him sitting in the back of the empty theater reading a book called “How to be a Detective.” As in all his movies, Keaton is a hapless, ingenuous but resourceful young man with high ideals and unflappable determination. In this film, the object of that determination (as in nearly every slapstick comedy) is a beautiful ingénue, cleverly called The Girl.
But just when Keaton’s courting of The Girl is starting to go well, it all goes beautifully and hilariously wrong. When a competing courter (Ward Crane) frames Keaton for stealing The Girl’s father’s watch, the aspiring detective decides to put his budding skills to the test.
The real fun begins when Keaton falls asleep in his projection booth and dreams himself into the film he is projecting. In this dream movie, which shares the plot and characters of his real-life conundrum but in a high-society setting, he is the suave, titular Sherlock Jr., “the best detective in the world.”
In the raised stakes of the dream movie, Keaton must solve the crime and win The Girl, among a melee of hulking henchmen, high-speed car chases, incredible death-defying stunts and head-turning tricks.
More than anything, “Sherlock Jr.” is a funny paragon of slapstick comedy. The film is saturated with gags, each one more hilarious than the last. Every second is funny, which speaks to Keaton’s ability as both a filmmaker and performer. Keaton’s nickname was The Great Stone Face, because whatever befell him, he always retained his bemused expression. He relied on nuance, transforming the smallest gestures into brilliant comedy.
But “Sherlock Jr.” transcends broad comedy. Back in 1924, Buster Keaton was already challenging the conventions of film. One of the best and funniest comedies of all time, the film also grapples with questions about the nature of cinema — half of the action takes place in a film within the film within a dream, and this was 86 years before “Inception.”
By all accounts, “Sherlock Jr.” is way ahead of its time. It contains ground-breaking special effects: In one scene, after leaving his sleeping body, Buster walks into the film he is projecting — which is something Woody Allen did 60 years later in “Purple Rose of Cairo.” And Keaton’s intricately choreographed stunts, done with the crude technology of the time, were unparalleled before and have been since.
Silent films represent some of the greatest works of cinema, and are regretfully neglected by most filmgoers today. These films are not inaccessible, nor incomprehensible. They’re fun and entertaining. “Sherlock Jr.” is not only one of the best of these, but also a great gateway into that legendary silent film genre, the slapstick comedy.