Great Moments in Cinema: Sherlock Jr.
For this installment of Great Moments in Cinema, we’re going all the way back to 1924, to look at a sequence that celebrates the power of cinema, which was at that time was still a young and novel medium, and had not yet evolved the style of film grammar with which we are all familiar today. Nevertheless, Buster Keaton, the director, writer, and star of the subject of this article, understood that cinema held a profound influence over both our dreams and desires, and he crafted a sequence that perfectly captured the essence of that power, while simultaneously rejoicing in the tricks and techniques that are unique to motion pictures. In doing so, he created one of the most enduring and oft imitated sequences ever put to film, one that is every bit as poetic as it is hilarious.
In Sherlock Jr. (1924), the Great Stone Face plays an unnamed young man who works as a projectionist at a movie theater, and spends his days dreaming of becoming a detective. He is smitten with The Girl (Kathryn McGuire), a lovely young lass who comes from a wealthy family. She is also being pursued by a local sheik (Ward Crane), a con man who wants nothing more than to marry into money, and spend the rest of his days in the lap of luxury. To that end, he steals a pocket watch belonging to The Girl’s father (Joe Keaton), and pawns it so he can buy The Girl an expensive gift. However, when The Girl’s father learns that his watch is missing, he confronts the local sheik, who plants the pawn shop receipt on our hapless hero, who accidentally indicts himself when he reaches into his pocket and discovers the damning slip of paper. The Projectionist is forbidden from ever seeing The Girl again, so he despondently makes his way back to the theater, where he falls asleep and imagines himself stepping into the movie screen and becoming the world famous Sherlock Jr., a master detective who is tasked with finding the culprit behind a daring jewel heist. Meanwhile, The Girl discovers the truth, and now she has to convince her father that her sweetly naïve suitor is innocent. Can she convince her father of the truth, but more importantly, can Sherlock Jr. find the criminals who absconded with the stolen jewels? Well, considering this is a Hollywood film from a much more innocent time, when happy endings were all the rage, what do you think?
The first half of the film is pretty much a standard Hollywood love story, with Keaton trying to win the hand of his beloved while contending with a rival suitor, elevated by Keaton’s flair for inventive gags, which he performs with expert timing and an amazing physical prowess. But it is not until the halfway point, when Keaton’s sad sack of a projectionist falls asleep and imagines himself as the star of the film he’s showing, that the film transcends its genre trappings and becomes something truly special. He doesn’t merely fall asleep and dream that he is a part of the film, a melodrama titled “Hearts and Pearls.” Instead, we watch as the projectionist strides up the aisle, determined to rescue the film’s heroine from the clutches of a dastardly villain, and effortlessly steps into the screen and becomes part of the action. Unfortunately, he is not yet fully part of the film’s world, and finds that he is subject to the editing tricks and techniques that make up the language of film. He soon finds himself jumping from one setting to the next, jumping from a quiet garden to a busy highway to a mountain side to a lion-infested jungle, finally ending up right where he started, back in the quiet garden, scratching his head in confusion. All the while, the orchestra continues playing the score, and the audience keeps their eyes fixed on the screen, watching these strange events unfold as though there is nothing wrong.
Above all else, the sequence is a master class in editing and staging. Keaton cuts between each location quickly, but it is seamless thanks to his expert sense of pacing and staging. The sequence moves at a rapid pace, and the cuts are all obvious, but we believe that Keaton’s character is changing locations thanks to the way he starts and ends each new bit in the same place and the same position. The reality of his predicament is further sold by Keaton’s reactions, all of which are broad but believable, not to mention funny. The sequence goes on long after the audience gets the joke, but it continues to be funny throughout, mostly due to the combination of Keaton’s performance and the element of surprise. Even if it weren’t so consistently hilarious, however, it would still be an inventive sequence worthy of scrutiny, all because of the way in which Keaton expertly manipulates the sense of reality through the use of clever editing and staging.
More than that, though, the sequence is a celebration of what film can do, and the power it holds over viewers. Film is primarily a visual medium, and from the start it has been a way for people to capture a particular slice of time and preserve it for future generations. However, it took a while for the language of film to evolve in such a way that it could replicate reality, and even longer for it be able to convey a sense of story through a linear progression of both time and place. Editing is the primary means for creating a sense of movement through time and space on film, and this is what Keaton is celebrating with Sherlock Jr. He uses it to create an original and interesting predicament for his character, but one that is also understandable to audiences who, even at that time, were able to understand the language of films. It is a brilliant use of cinematic techniques, but one that wouldn’t work nearly as well as it does if Keaton didn’t understand that there is also something else at work in that sequence.
Films hold a power over even the most casual moviegoers, and Keaton understood that better even than most of his contemporaries. He understood that viewers want believe in films, even though they understand that what they are seeing is not in fact reality, but a construct. We want them to carry us to new and exciting places, and Keaton exploited that belief at every opportunity, but no more so than in this sequence. In this film, his character becomes an audience surrogate, and by stepping out of the audience and into the screen, he gets the chance to live out the dream of nearly every person sitting in the audience. He becomes a part of the movies, which is something that the vast majority of people only dream about. That this dream is undermined by a humorous and wholly ridiculous circumstance is beside the point; the projectionist has managed to transcend his reality and become part of something bigger.
Cinema holds a peculiar power, and many filmmakers have made careers of exploring that power and its relationship to audiences. Buster Keaton was one of the first, and many of his films exploited that power in a myriad of ways. However, it was most explicit in Sherlock Jr., which serves as a template for any filmmaker who wants to make a movie about a character who longs to step into the silver screen. From The Purple Rose of Cairo to Last Action Hero, the impact of Keaton’s film is still felt to this day. This is due not only to how expertly Keaton stages his sequence, but also how forward thinking he was to create the sequence in the first place, especially during the medium’s early years.