Oh Buster Keaton, even though you never do so yourself you always make me smile. With a deadpan attitude and a near-suicidal knack for physical comedy, Buster Keaton proved to be one of the most inventive film comedians of all time with 1920s output alone. One of his best and oddest films was Sherlock Jr., a bite-size, crazy, and surreal spy parody. At 44 minutes, the film is infamously lean for a feature but it perfectly encapsulates Buster Keaton’s brilliance as a comedian, stuntman and technical innovator.
Sherlock Jr. is about a film projectionist/amateur detective whose life is immediately put in disarray; the guy is broke, the Local Sheik wooed his girlfriend, life sucks for this guy. Downtrodden, the guy starts sleep in the projector room and then dreams of becoming the silver screen hero Sherlock Jr.! The premise of a film within a film alone reveals how Keaton’s innovative was at the when it came to the cinematic structure of comedy. Gags like Keaton tripping over himself because the film keeps jump-cutting to different sets was something nobody did back then and Keaton aces them like a true professional. Keaton’s style of humor is firmly rooted in vaudeville, Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin, but unlike Keaton was the first and probably best at translating that style into film with such postmodern detail.
Sherlock Jr. also shows Keaton near superlative physical commitment and knowledge of performing gags. Keaton was infamous for performing his own life-threatening stunts, including one in this film where he may have broken his neck, yet his deadpan delivery always makes them look so humorous and fun. In Sherlock Jr. Keaton jumps from one eye-popping stunt to the next with the grace of a bumbling magician. Add to the fact that the Sherlock Jr. is about as a long as a TV drama episode and weird premise the film becomes less of a comedy than a live action cartoon, it is awesome.
If there is one problem with Keaton is that he himself has a very cold and offbeat presentation. Lloyd was more lighthearted working class hero and Chaplin was a soulful bum; in contrast, Keaton looked like a stuntman that was pompous, confused or tired. He looked like a hipster but even then he had a better grasp at irony than anyone back then and now. Like when Keaton’s character is introduced as “Sherlock Jr.” he absolutely chews the scenery as this ridiculously foppish Sherlock parody in wonderful fashion. Scenes like this really allow him to play with his deadpan face in order to mock the seemingly more sophisticated ideals of Victorian Melodrama. Keaton’s offbeat acting style may seem distant but it adds up to some great comedy in this film.
With Sherlock Jr. Buster Keaton made a powerful and complete statement about his identity as a performer and filmmaker. He proved himself to be one of the great tinkers in filmmaking by dabbling in meta-filmmaking tricks like jumps cuts and still make a cohesive and hilarious film. The film also featured some of his most audacious stunts and he executes them at a Looney Tunes pace. Admittedly, Sherlock Jr. is less a film than it is a showcase for his film experiments and stunt work. Yet by showcasing all of his ideas into this one short film he creates a wonderful and funny starting point for anyone curious enough to watch silent film. It is a short and strange trip that will make anyone laugh and smile.