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Sherlock Jr.
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by Jay Seaver

"One of the greatest dream sequences of all time"
5 stars

Buster Keaton is remembered as a master of silent comedy. We remember his great deadpan expression and his fearless stuntwork, but what's often overlooked is his skill as a director. His films are tremendous not just because he was a truly fantastic performer, but because he knew how to use the camera to his best advantage. Sometimes this meant just finding the best vantage point to capture the gags, but sometimes the camera work is an integral part of what makes the film.

Take Sherlock Jr., a forty-five minute Keaton featurette that contains one of cinema's most incredible early dream sequences. The story features Keaton as a movie-theater projectionist studying to become a detective. He is courting a nice girl (Kathryn McGuire), but has a scheming rival (Ward Crane) who steals a watch belonging to the girl's father (Joe Keaton) and frames Buster for it. Dejected and rejected, he returns to the theater, falls asleep while projecting a film. Within the dream, the characters in the film become the girl, her father, and the rival, and Keaton is able to walk directly into the screen.

This permeable fourth wall is an impressive visual trick for an eighty-year-old film. The method by which it is pulled off is relatively low-tech - a cinema set where the screen is actually an open space, with another set behind it. As simple as it is in concept, it's a difficult trick to shoot well, but Keaton and his cinematographers (Byron Houck and Elgin Lessley) pull it off incredibly well - there's nothing to indicate that the set contains a gigantic portal rather than a screen until Keaton walks through it. It's work as precise as any of his stunts, as is a sequence where Buster stays in one place as the world changes around him because the film cuts to different locations.

As impressive a trick as this is, the film doesn't have to rely solely upon nifty visual effects. Keaton and regular gagmen Clyde Bruckman, Jean Havez, and Joe Mitchell put together a fun set of visual comedy, such as where Buster comes out behind after finding a lost dollar while sweeping up after a show. The really great gags come during the dream sequence, as Keaton takes on the character of "Sherlock Jr.", the world's greatest detective. The villain of the piece, along with his butler henchman, has it out for him, and attempt to kill him with a variety of devices, all of which Keaton nimbly sidesteps. Some are broad, cartoonish bits; others are demonstrations that Keaton must have been a formidable opponent at pool.

Keaton's deadpan expression serves him well as Sherlock, giving him a cool confidence that marks him as just as eccentric as his porkpie-hatted projectionist, though in a different way. It's a ton of fun to watch Sherlock pass through danger without blinking or apparently noticing, especially since plain old Buster managed to hit every obstacle available. His small stature makes him a fine contrast to Ward Crane; Crane is something like twice Buster's size and muscular, with a mustache and a square jaw; he'd be handsome if he weren't an obvious bully. Kathryn McGuire is sweet as the girl of their affections; the script lets her be an active participant in the story, and her fondness for Buster in the face of doubts gives the story just enough heft to be more than just a string of gags while still allowing those gags to work.

Like many of Keaton's works, "Sherlock Jr." is a technical marvel, even if it's a marvel of cinematography rather than avoiding a horrifying injury. And like the best of those films, the ingenuity of the set-ups and execution of the gags should impress even younger moviegoers who are spoiled by technology that can put anything a director imagines on the screen. Characters have come into and out of movie screens ever since (and probably did before), but few dodged deathtraps once up there with anything close to Keaton's cool wit. Keaton gets us to invest ourselves in what's going on in the dream, even though it's the dream of a fictional character - twice removed from the audience's real world.

The talkies didn't treat Bust Keaton so well, not just because his athletic physical comedy quickly went out of vogue, but because he wound up being directed by others - and few other directors could do funny as well as Buster Keaton.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=15055&reviewer=371
originally posted: 09/05/06 21:24:04
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User Comments

12/14/10 moose rapper Funny as hell 5 stars
9/05/10 Josie Cotton is a goddess Awesome action/comedy! 4 stars
7/15/08 Reza Tayebi Amazing after all these years. 5 stars
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  21-Apr-1924 (NR)
  DVD: 16-Nov-2010



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