September 8, 2013 by smumcounty
For a while now, I’ve been thinking about compiling a list of classic films that it would be impossible not to like even for those people who routinely tell you “I don’t watch black and white films. I just don’t like them.” After overhearing these words at my imaginary cocktail party I can whip around and produce said list of classic films and show the person how wrong they are. So far I’ve gotten as far as “The Maltese Falcon” and “Casablanca” perhaps “It’s a Wonderful Life” but I can imagine someone considering this film too cloying. It occurred to me while musing on this list whether I could possibly include a silent film. Sure black and white versus color is a fairly arbitrary separation that can be overcome by good storytelling but silent versus sound is a whole different sort of beast. The advent of sound changed the way stories were told in film so profoundly that to expect someone who’s never seen a silent film to enjoy one may be too much to ask. It may be that silent film is an acquired taste that one can’t expect to immediately appreciate. But then I remember “Sherlock Jr.”
“Sherlock Jr.” is a silent film comedy from Buster Keaton that concerns a film projectionist who dreams of being a great detective. While wooing his girl he is given the chance to prove himself in this regard when he is framed for the theft of a pocket watch by a rival. While working as a projectionist, he falls asleep and quite literally dreams of solving a big case and getting the girl in the end. Most of the action takes place in this dream and he only wakes up in time to find that he has been cleared of the crime by the sleuthing of his prospective beloved. But those are only the plot details and anyone who’s seen a film from one of the greats of silent film comedy (Chaplin, Lloyd, Keaton) knows that the real joy of a silent film comedy is not in the plot but in the comedic bits that accompany, sometimes quite superfluously, the plot. The joy in watching Lloyd’s “Safety Last”, for example, is not in his plotting to get the money he needs to impress his girl but in the bits of comedic mishegas that he gets into as he makes his way climbing up the outside of that office building from floor to floor.
That being said, I could probably nominate a number of silent film comedies for my list of films that are impossible not to like but “Sherlock Jr.” stands out from all the others in the ‘wow factor’ of its comedic bits. Watching some of these bits you have to stop and ask yourself if you really saw what you think you just saw. Nothing demonstrates this ‘wow factor’ more than the bit where Keaton’s projectionist character falls asleep and dreams that he has entered the film that he is showing. This bit begins simply enough by his sleeping self wandering down to the theater and watching the film on the screen. Keaton watches as the film progresses and as the characters in the film take on the likenesses of his prospective girlfriend, his rival, and her father. Finally, at one point Keaton gets up on stage and hops into the picture. To achieve this bit of magic, Keaton wed images of an actual film projected onto a screen with a scene with actual people on the stage acting out a scene from the film. This is done so seamlessly that it at once is surprising and yet seems very natural for his character to be able to walk directly into the picture.
But that is only the start of the film’s sleight of hand. The film quickly cuts (admittedly incoherently) from scenes of a crowded street, a jungle populated with lions, a seaside, and a mountain range, among others. With each change of scene everything changes except Keaton’s character who moves from one scene to the next without changing position and who proceeds to interact with his surroundings. In one cut he walks down a busy street which cuts to a mountain ridge which he almost walks right off of. He stops, looks over the ridge, and then finds himself in a jungle scene staring at a sleeping lion. This is definitely one of those bits where you have to stop and ask yourself, “How did he do that?” Indeed, sixty years or so before CGI, how did he do that? Turns out he did it the old fashioned way. This is no trick photography. These are all scenes shot in the normal way. The continuity in position and posture from one scene to another in Keaton’s character is achieved because of the precision in the placement of the camera in relation to Keaton in the frame from one shot to another. Keaton revealed many years later that this precision was achieved through the use of surveyor’s instruments.
Keaton jumps into the film
Another example of a ‘wow’ moment occurs when Keaton’s character in the film within a film breaks in on a group of thieves who’ve stolen a necklace. Surrounded by the thieves, all with guns pointed at him, he manages to grab the necklace and make a quick escape by jumping through an open window. In doing so he jumps through a box that he has previously propped up on the outside of the window containing women’s clothing. He dives through the box, somersaults over, and stands without breaking stride. When he stands he is dressed as an old lady, complete with wig. The thieves run out the door to give chase but are stymied when all they see is a little old lady wandering down the street. This scene is so surprising because it’s filmed without cuts. The action from the point when he grabs the necklace to the point where he walks away as an old lady appears to be a single piece thanks to the fact that Keaton fades out the front wall of the building the thieves are standing in just so that we can see the action in a single take. The shot is so smooth and quick (it takes about three seconds) that the effect is truly eye-popping.
A similar stunt is performed just minutes later when Keaton, on the run from the thieves, is trapped in an alley and looking for a way out. An old lady who has a briefcase open in front of her hung around her neck by a string offers him help. She backs up to the building at the end of the alley and points at the briefcase. Keaton is at first reluctant but when he sees two of his pursuers enter the alley and cut off his escape he turns, runs, and jumps into the back of the briefcase, going through the old lady. The old lady then walks away revealing that Keaton has disappeared. Here again the action is so smooth that we can’t believe our eyes.
Keaton leaps head first through an old lady
In both these cases, it’s not hard to realize that the stunts were achieved through editing. The shot of a normally clothed Keaton jumping through the window is wedded with a shot of him jumping through the window dressed as an old lady. The shot of him jumping through the briefcase is a little harder to figure out simply because it’s hard to believe Keaton could jump through such a small opening and hard to understand where the old lady’s body is when he does but here too some editing tricks are being used.
So far I’ve focused on the stunts that make this film so interesting but they aren’t the only reasons this is such a great film. They only make this film stand out from other silent comedies I could name. In addition to these stunts, we have the usual comedic bits that Keaton is known for. In the beginning of the film, we see Keaton sweeping out the theater where he works and finding a dollar in the trash, giving him just enough money to buy the three dollar box of chocolates he’s spied for his girl. Unfortunately, a young woman comes by and asks him if he’s found a dollar that she lost in the theater. Keaton thinks for a moment, trying to decide whether he should hand over the dollar and give up his hopes of buying the box of chocolates. He finally turns to the girl and says, “Describe it.” Satisfied with her description of a dollar bill he hands it over. The bit continues from there with other patrons approaching him with tales of other missing dollars. It’s very funny.
One of my favorite comedic bits comes at the very end of the film when Keaton’s girl meets him in the projection booth to tell him that they’ve made a terrible mistake in accusing him. Keaton stands in front of the girl, all shyness, wondering how he can confess to her his love when he spies the film he’s been projecting playing out a similar scene between two on screen lovers. Keaton quickly decides to follow the lead of the filmic paramour. The character turns his girl to face him. Keaton turns his girl to face him. The character kisses the girl on the hand. Keaton kisses his girl on the hand. The character kisses his girl on the lips. Keaton kisses his girl on the lips. The whole scene is very sweet and even though Keaton was known as ‘old stone face’ he manages to convey a lot of emotion as he peers at the film for clues as to what to do next. The look on his face when the film dissolves to a scene of the two lovers holding two babies, presumably years later, is priceless.
In short, the wow factors in “Sherlock Jr.” are what will draw those who don’t normally consider themselves classic film buffs to watch but the comedic bits in the film is what will keep them watching and will hopefully encourage them to see others of Keaton’s films. “Sherlock Jr.” is a film I can recommend to anyone and finally, I’d like to point out that it’s a great film to watch with your kids. Kids will definitely be impressed with the stunts and tickled by the slapstick comedy. What kid doesn’t like slapstick? And the best thing about a silent film is no one cares if you talk over it so you can discuss the film with your kids while you’re watching. Just a little parenting tip, from me to you. Enjoy.