Sherlock Jr. (1924)
Article 5558 by Dave Sindelar
Directed by Buster Keaton
Featuring Buster Keaton, Kathryn McGuire, Joe Keaton
What it is: Surreal slapstick fantasy
A movie projectionist aspires to be a detective. When he is framed for the theft of a watch belonging to his girlfriend’s father, he tries to use his amateur detective powers to clear himself.
Ignore for the moment that plot description; it’s not really what makes this short movie special. Most of the movie is Keaton doing what Keaton usually does (which, during this era, is certainly nothing to sneer at; he’s excellent throughout). During these sequences, he plays what amounts to parallel roles; he’s the hapless beau trying to woo his girlfriend in the main story, and the brilliant detective in the movie-within-a-movie that makes up most of the second half. It’s the transition from one story to the next that is Keaton at his most brilliant; he falls into a dream in which he gains the power to enter the movie-within-a-movie itself by walking directly into the screen. The sequence that follows has Keaton attempting to deal with an abruptly changing landscape in which he is the only consistent figure, and this sequence owes much to some of the comic tricks of Melies as later movies would owe to this sequence (both THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO and DUCK AMUCK come to mind). In the end, the movie seems to be smitten with the magic of movies while at the same time recognizing that much of the movie world is a work of deception; I think it’s very fitting that in the final analysis, Buster’s problem is resolved not by any sleuthing tricks but rather by a straightforward question from the girlfriend to the proper individual. This long short (45 minutes) is considered one of Buster’s finest moments, and I’d concur with that.