Monday, 26 August 2013

Busting the fourth wall… Sherlock Jr. (1924)

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...
He’s desperate to buy some decent chocolates for his sweetheart (Kathryn McGuire) but he’s a dollar short… he finds one on the floor as he cleans up the cinema but a woman comes along to re-claim it, followed by another who he gives a dollar to when she says she’s also lost one, then a man arrives who refuses Buster’s dollar as he’s lost a wad of them in his wallet which he soon reclaims from the mess on the floor.

Ward Dastardly
It’s not Buster’s day but he buys the cheap chocs and writes a higher price on the back in order to impress his girl. Their canoodling is interrupted by The Local Sheik (dastardly Ward Crane) who has his eyes on the girl as well. He steals her father’s watch and pawns it for $4, just enough to buy the posh box. Sweeping into the Girl’s house he lures her into the parlour to admire his superior confectionary, leaving Buster bereft.

Now, that is a big box etc...
As the two men vie for attention, the Girl’s father discovers the theft. Sherlock Jnr steps in with the aid of his step-by-step guide to sleuthing… Sadly things don’t work out for Buster as the Sheik has dropped his pawn ticket into his pocket. It’s discovered and the poor boy is banished from the house in shame, the Sheik sneers in triumph and the Girl cries in sorrow.

Stop and search
Sherlock follows the Sheik but is lured onto a freight train by the wily huckster. He escapes through the roof and as the train moves past a water pump, catches a ride and drifts gracefully down onto the tracks, before being slammed onto the rails by the force of the water.

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
Sherlock returns to his night-job and as the film rolls in the projection booth, he drifts off into sleep. His body splits as his dream-self awakes and reality shifts. Dream Buster watches the film as the characters begin to take on familiar shapes… The Girl becomes a flapper who is being romanced by a smart-suited version of the Sheik who it transpires is involved in a plot to steal a string of priceless pearls.

The watched, watches...
Outraged, Dream Buster walks down the aisle, onto the stage and straight into the picture.

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
They kidnap the Girl and Buster eludes the gangsters by diving through a window immediately into an old maid’s clothes and from there through his assistant and a wall…the logic of film dreaming. He ends up sitting on a motorcycle handlebar as it narrowly misses a steam train at a level crossing – an amazing stunt that must have required meticulous planning and brave precision.

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's bravest?
Written by Clyde Bruckman, Jean Havez and Joseph A. Mitchell, no doubt with contributions from Keaton, Sherlock Jnr is a classic of comedy composition with a high-energy performance from its lead. It has some of the definitive Keaton moments but for all its ingenuity perhaps lacks the soul of The Cameraman or the narrative pull of The General. It is a very funny delight, stopping a couple of teenagers in their tracks for 45 minutes as well as their old man.

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.

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