Thursday, October 11, 2018

Sherlock Jr. Shines As A Demonstration Of Buster Keaton's Impressive Comedic Stuntwork

Watching Sherlock Jr., perhaps the most famous of Buster Keaton's numerous silent film comedies, solidified for me that I'm more of a Charlie Chaplin or Harold Lloyd guy when it comes to my silent movie comedies. No offense meant to Keaton though, few actors in any era could measure up to the likes of Chaplin and Lloyd and he's still got plenty of talent of his own that makes him a noteworthy individual in his own right. Such talent is on full display in Sherlock Jr., which, in the span of just over 40 minutes, allows one to see numerous instances of the kind of impressive stuntwork that informed so much of his comedy.

Like so many silent movie comedy protagonists, the lead of Sherlock Jr. is a down on his luck dude pining for a girl of much higher financial and social status, specifically The Projectionist (played, of course, by Buster Keaton) in this case while his love interest is a lady who is never given a proper name but rather given the title of The Girl (Kathryn McGuire). Anywho, The Projectionist is falsely accused of stealing a valuable pocket watch belonging to the family of The Girl, a crime actually committed by a fellow known as The Local Shiek (Ward Crane). Now that The Projectionist, a wannabe sleuth, has been banished from ever seeing The Girl again, he's become so distraught that he can only think about finding the real person responsible for stealing the pocket watch.

This determination leads to him having a dream, which occurs when he falls asleep just as he's supposed to be watching a projector that's playing a movie, in which he's a world-famous private eye known as Sherlock Jr, an extended fantasy that takes up roughly the second-half of the film. Cutting away from reality is a bold choice that has its advantages and disadvantages for the production at hand. On the downside, Sherlock Jr. is clearly more interested in the dream sequence portion of the story where Keaton can really let loose with inspired set pieces so one wonders why the story doesn't get to it sooner, much of the first half of the story set in reality feels far more perfunctory compared to the immensely creative sequences yet to come.

Because it's also trying to get actual emotional investment out of the relationship between The Projectionist and The Girl, one also notices how the two halves of Sherlock Jr. feel too disconnected from one another, preventing the romance from having as much poignancy as it could have (the fact that The Girl doesn't really have a personality of her own is also a problem). Now, before everyone begins to grab their pitchforks and torches, let me just say that Sherlock Jr. is still a mighty fine motion picture overall that's a full-stop marvel once Buster Keaton is allowed to go whole-hog on elaborate pieces of physical comedy and stuntwork in the dream section of the story.

Nearly a century after its released, I was left amazed at just how exactly Keaton pulled off certain scenes like Sherlock Jr. interacting on the figures on a constantly changing movie screen or an extended single take depicting that same character narrowly avoiding being hit by oncoming obstacles like a train. There's plenty of clever physical comedy peppered throughout Sherlock Jr., but once the constraints of reality have been loosened once The Projectionist falls asleep, Keaton truly comes alive with all the escapades he puts his lead character through that are filmed and edited in a manner that allows all the craftsmanship the cast & crew are putting into this film to be truly appreciated.

If one wonders why Buster Keaton's name has come up a lot in recent months as a point of comparison for the similarly intricate physical stuntworks in the newest Mission: Impossible movie, Sherlock Jr. should serve as a clear demonstration why. Keaton will leave you in hysterics and awe at the kind of comedic stuntwork he accomplishes here so effortlessly both as an actor and a director. Maybe the lead romance doesn't work entirely well (a shame given how sweet and charming many silent movie romances could be), but at least Sherlock Jr. comes through in the stuntwork department to a truly extraordinary level. 

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