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With: Buster Keaton, Kathryn McGuire, Joe Keaton, Erwin Connelly, Ward Crane
Written by: Clyde Bruckman, Jean Havez, Joe Mitchell
Directed by: Buster Keaton
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 44
Date: 21/04/1924
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Sherlock Jr. (1924)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Super Snoop

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

To put it plainly, Sherlock Jr. is my choice for the greatest film ever made.

In my book, for a film to qualify as the greatest, it must be made by one of the cinema's most supreme artists; that is, a filmmaker with a consistent and personal vision, a technical innovator, and a brilliant entertainer. Only a few filmmakers fall into this category for me: Orson Welles, Charlie Chaplin, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Luis Bunuel, Val Lewton, and the man behind Sherlock Jr., Buster Keaton.

Between those seven filmmakers, at least 40 great films have been made. Sherlock Jr. rose to the top for various reasons. One is that I got to see it on the big screen, twice, at San Francisco's Castro theater. Both times the film was accompanied by a live score by the Club Foot Orchestra; a score that was so good it's now become the official score that plays on the VHS tape, the laserdisc, and the DVD of the film. It's the liveliest, silliest score I've ever heard for a silent film, containing odes to Duane Eddy's Peter Gunn theme, Philip Glass' Koyaanisqatsi music, and various old pop songs.

(I also got to see Sherlock Jr. on an early date with the girl who became my wife.)

Sherlock Jr. is wonderfully compact. It runs a scant 45 minutes but feels just like a feature-length film. It doesn't feel too long or too short. It also contains some of the most astonishing and thoughtful special effects ever put on film.

The story begins with a "boy" (played by Keaton at 29 years old) working in a movie theater and studying to be a detective. He and his rival both show up on the doorstep of the girl sporting boxes of candy. The rival has stolen a pocketwatch from the girl's house to pay for his candy, but before Buster can put his detective skills to work to solve the crime, he himself gets blamed for the theft. Dejected, he goes back to work where he starts the film, then falls asleep. He "leaves" his body and enters the movie screen where he is caught in a series of cuts (this sequence never fails to astound). For example, he is about to dive into a body of water, when the picture cuts to a snow bank. Buster completes his dive headfirst into a pile of snow. When the film is finished having its way with Buster, he wakes up in the middle of a movie mystery story in which he plays the brilliant Sherlock Jr., a real detective with all the confidence that Buster lacks. He defeats certain death, solves the mystery and participates in hair-raising chases, such as the one where he rides alone on the handlebars of a motorcycle, thinking that his faithful servant is driving.

The whole scenario is an early meditation on the nature of cinema in life. The best reason anyone can think of why we go to the movies is to identify with some glamorous person or story, to become intimately involved with them and forget our own dreary existence for a while. Keaton has made a film about that very notion. He dreams of being a detective, no doubt from having seen detective films. In real life, he fails miserably and without fanfare. But in the film (in his dream), he is invincible. The sequence with Buster caught in the "cutting" of the film is even more brilliant. By showing the movie screen slightly framed with the interior of the movie theater, Keaton is inviting us to participate in three worlds; the real-life audience, the audience within the movie, and Buster himself, caught in the film. The fact that he remains in position during the cuts allows us to continue to identify with him. If he were to suddenly disappear, we would be aware that he was part of the film, and not an outsider trying to fit in.

I love this sequence, but to me, the best sequence comes at the end, when Buster is finally allowed to kiss the girl (who has solved the real-life mystery on her own with no help at all from Buster). Buster peers through the window in the projection booth to look at the film for tips on how to kiss the girl. Now that he's back in the real world, Buster still looks at film for ways to enhance his own dreary life. The great joke comes when the film "fades to black" and fades up again with the movie couple surrounded by children. Buster's confused face says it all. (The censorship of sex is something relegated only to movies. Our own lives can be quite X-rated by comparison.)

Did I mention that, besides being brilliant, Sherlock Jr. is funny? That's the good part. One ought not to have to slog through great films that are no fun. And if one gets to laugh, that's a rare bonus.

Sherlock Jr. is best viewed on the 1999 Kino DVD, which comes in a double bill with Our Hospitality (1923), a feature film with some excellent stunts, but which takes a long time to get started. Besides that the DVD has no extras, but the sound and picture are tops.

In 2010, Kino released a new high-def, remastered edition on DVD and Blu-Ray. It comes with three music tracks, by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, the fun Club Foot Orchestra score, and a jazz score by Jay Ward. David Kalat provides a commentary track. As a bonus, the disc also includes Keaton's feature debut Three Ages (1923), which was filmed in three segments; just in case, it flopped, it could be cut into three short films and re-released. Ostensibly a spoof of Griffith's Intolerance, Keaton's film looks at love triangles throughout the ages, specifically the Caveman era, ancient Rome, and the modern era. It's not one of his most inspired efforts overall, but it contains many memorable moments, such as Buster's entrance on a dinosaur, or the gorgeous moment in which he tumbles over a cliff and gives the camera a kiss as he goes.