Buster Keaton had to re-cut this film in response to the disappointing audience reaction at initial screenings. Regarded now as one of his finest films, Sherlock Jnr also features one of the most enduring devices in cinema – the fantasy of joining those we watch on screen.
Maybe he tries to do too much with a plot that starts off with a warning about not doing two things at once and which then jazzes its way into pure fantasy. This may have been deemed too contrived for an audience still in love with the primary fantasy of film itself: why burst their bubble?
In playing so much with form and convention, is Buster too “modern” to be “post-modern”?
You can see why this could have had a greater effect on later audiences more used to the tricks of the flicks: now we’d all like to be up there with Buster, in 1924 and in uproarious, hilarious silence…
Buster’s character is a projectionist who is training himself to be a detective – a Jack of neither trade (though as star, director* and producer, Keaton was an undoubted master of all three…).
|Kathryn McGuire, Buster Keaton and a small box of chocs...|
|Now, that is a big box etc...|
|Stop and search|
This particular trick resulted in Keaton fracturing his neck. He only discovered this many years on: ignoring the pain at the time, Buster simply carried on.
|Clinging on to the water tower|
|The watched, watches...|
Not content with his initial optical illusion, Keaton hits his audience with more and more outrageous shifts in scenery as his screen-on-screen self is transported from the house to the garden then onto a mountain and into a jungle… His film within a film life is naturally now subject to the logic of cinema.
The pearls are stolen and an altogether more convincing Sherlock Jnr arrives to solve the case: in his dreams he is the real deal. The screen-Sheik and his accomplice (Erwin Connelly) try to kill him but he’s too smart, out-foxing them in a game of explosive pool.
|A change of scene|
Dreaming onwards, the Girl is naturally rescued but in the real world she is the rescuer, investigating the identity of the man who really pawned the watch, and greeting the somnambulistic projectionist with the good news as he awakes.
Buster still works. It’s his movement and his daring but especially his persona, which accepts his lot and yet still fights against it. Here his knowing inclusiveness takes an extraordinary additional quality as he moves into a world within a world. Lost in cinema he still battles his way back and, to save time, the Girl wins him! Buster was an equal opportunities silent film maker.
He is aided by a stirring score on the new Blu-ray provided by the Monte Alto Orchestra. This is arguably more sympathetic than the Club Foot Orchestra’s post-modern messe of Bond and more contemporary soundtrack references on the old DVD: Keaton’s comedy doesn’t need this kind of modernisation… it still connects.
The Blu-ray print is sharp as a needle and a big step up from the DVD I’ve previously watched, it also includes Three Ages and is available direct from Kino Lorber or from Amazon.
*There was un-credited directorial assistance from Roscoe Arbuckle who was persona non grata by this stage even though wholly innocent after his tragic trial.