Filmsite Movie Review
Sherlock Jr. (1924)
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Sherlock Jr. (1924) is stone-faced director/producer Buster Keaton's marvelously inventive, short silent film era, comic fantasy - his third and shortest feature film (after a series of two-reel shorts in the early 1920s). It was filled with the comedian's trademark physical gags, intricately-choreographed and acrobatic vaudeville stunts, visually-witty humor and amazing special effects (an explosive billiard ball, a trap door, etc.). This spoof of detective films was the first of Keaton's feature films solely directed by himself, after his co-director stints in Three Ages (1923) and Our Hospitality (1923). It was a remarkably proficient and well-edited technical film with considerable 'movie magic,' demonstrating some early, innovative in-camera tricks (such as jump-cuts, super-imposition or double-exposure).

Compared to the other silent clowns of the early film era, Keaton's risk-taking slapstick comedy was more physically-oriented, emotionless, violent and visceral. Charlie Chaplin's films were more overtly thematic, with social commentary and satire, pathos, sentimentality and political engagement, as evidenced in films with his Little Tramp character, including The Kid (1921), The Gold Rush (1925), City Lights (1931), and Modern Times (1936).

The main point of Keaton's imaginative narrative in this celebrated classic was about dreams and reality (portrayed in parallel narratives of the cinematic world and the real world). All of the actors who had roles in the framing story also took corresponding roles in the fantasy sequence. The hero dreamt himself into a detective movie that mirrored his real-life troubles. In a sense, Keaton's objective was to present a satirical tribute to the power of the movies to glamorize reality (Hollywood's Dream Factory) - to inspire escapist dreams, to let us live vicariously through film characters, to identify with film stars, or to project one's hopes and wishes onto the screen (or in our mind's eye).

Three highlights in this landmark film were the astounding, rapid scenery-cuts sequence when he first stepped into the film (it was one of the earliest examples of a 'movie in a movie' or 'film within a film'), an amazing railroad stunt (that fractured Keaton's neck, discovered years later), and an incredibly risky driver-less motorbike ride.

The inexpressive-faced Keaton starred as a humble Walter Mitty-type character - a lovelorn film projectionist (and janitor) simply named The Boy who dreamt of becoming a renowned master detective (Sherlock Jr.) and took a correspondence course to study the art of crime-fighting in 10 sessions. The modest Boy was wrongly accused (framed) of stealing the watch of his girlfriend's (Kathryn McGuire) father (Joe Keaton, Buster's real-life father) by the actual thief - the deceitful 'local sheik' (Ward Crane) who was a rival for his girlfriend's attention.

Afterward, he fell asleep in the theatre during the screening of a film - a drawing-room mystery about a stolen pearl necklace. He dreamt that he entered the film's screen as his dream-self and joined the action of the characters - his sweetheart and the rival. He became master sleuth Sherlock Jr. and solved the crime of thievery by proving that his rival stole the watch. However, in the real-world version of the story, the Girl was the one who had unearthed the truth and had returned to him at the end of the film to apologize for her false accusation. In the final boy-gets-girl sequence in the projection booth, the flustered 'detective' followed the cues of the leading-man actor on the silver-screen and kissed his girlfriend.

Keaton's work inspired two similar fantasies: Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) with Jeff Daniels and Mia Farrow, and the under-rated action/adventure parody Last Action Hero (1993) with Arnold Schwarzenegger, as well as the work of numerous other directors including Wes Anderson.

Plot Synopsis

Title Screens:

The film opened was two screens that provided a warning and a short summary to viewers about the two-pronged life of the Boy, the main character, who was a projectionist but also moonlighted as a 'Sherlock Holmes-like' sleuth:

There is an old proverb which says: "Don't try to do two things at once and expect to do justice to both." This is the story of a boy who tried it. While employed as a moving picture operator in a small town theater he was also studying to be a detective.

The Boy/Projectionist:

Seated in the back row of the empty moving picture theater during an off-hours break was the Boy/Projectionist (Buster Keaton). He was viewed in a close-up of his very alert, expressionless, and still face [Keaton was known as "The Great Stone Face"] as his eyes darted back and forth while reading lines of text in a book about his dream vocation - "HOW TO BE A DETECTIVE." He put the book down, and inspected his thumb-print on the back cover of the 'How-To' manual, and then examined his print with a magnifying glass.

He was accosted and then chided by his boss, the theater manager (Ford West) for slouching on the job, and ordered to quit reading and sweep up the theater: "Say - Mr. Detective - before you clean up any mysteries - clean up this theater." As he began sweeping up a pile of trash in the aisle way, he removed his fake mustache and pocketed it.

[Note: He demonstrated how he had two requisite pieces of detective equipment: a fake mustache disguise, and a magnifying glass.]

Introduction of Various Other Stock Characters:

The first of many inter-titles introduced each additional character by listing a description of the character and the actor's real name (as if it were the character's name).

The girl in the case.
- Kathryn McGuire

[Note: The main characters were un-named stock figures, a Boy, a Girl, a Father, a Handyman, and a Sheik. Three of the characters would become involved in a love triangle. Befitting the film's satirical theme of admiring or fantasizing about film idols on-screen while struggling in the real world, one might hypothesize that the Boy idolized current film star John Barrymore (who starred in Sherlock Holmes (1922), two years earlier), while the Girl resembled and aspired to be like cinema's curly-locked sweetheart Mary Pickford, and the Sheik was an aspiring wanna-be Rudolph Valentino (who starred as the title character in The Sheik (1921).]

Seated on a lawn wearing a gingham dress with a lacy pinafore apron, with sprinklers dousing the garden behind her, the Girl (Kathryn McGuire) fed scraps of food to her large cocker-spaniel dog. Her father - and his hired man - were also introduced in close-ups.

The girl's father had nothing to do so he got a hired man to help him.
- Joe Keaton
- Erwin Connelly

The Boy began to sweep up the garbage and trash on the theater floor in the front entryway lobby into the theater. [Note: Notice the prominent display of a picture of curly-haired movie star Mary Pickford - similar in appearance to the Girl.] The Boy moved a large sidewalk, sandwich-board sign advertising the current film:

Lost Love
Five Parts

Next door at a Confectionary that sold candy, cigars & tobacco, he was distracted when he looked into the window and noticed a small box of chocolate for sale at $1 dollar/box. Fancier, larger boxes sold for $3 dollars/box. The Boy reached into his pocket and pulled out two crumpled one-dollar bills - not enough to buy the nice box to impress his sweetheart - who he was daydreaming about. He entered the store and gestured to the store clerk (Christine Francis) if she would sell the $3 dollar box for $2 dollars, but she shook her head.

After shrugging, the Boy returned to his sweeping job, when a sticky piece of newspaper adhered onto his broom from the large pile of litter. He stepped on the paper to remove it, but then the newsprint page became stuck to the bottom of his right shoe. To detach it, he stepped on it with his left shoe, but then it moved from one shoe to the other. He bent down to grab the newspaper, but then it became attached to his left hand - and then to his right hand. When he heard the theater manager exiting through the entryway, he dove to the floor and thrust the paper out and positioned it in his expected pathway. The newspaper now became adhered to the man's shoe as he stepped on it with his left foot and walked away with the annoying problem solved.

Competition with the Sheik in Courting the Girl's Affection - With Boxes of Candy:

The local sheik.
- Ward Crane

A fancy dressed, thin-mustached, middle-aged Sheik also approached the window of the Confectionary, and saw the $3 dollar sale on the box of chocolates, but the gigolo shyster found that his pockets were empty and he was broke.

While sweeping, the Boy discovered a $1 bill among the discarded papers and pile of trash. He realized he now had just enough money to buy the $3 dollar box, but then a young woman (Doris Deane) rushed over, stooped down, searched through the pile of trash, and claimed she had lost a $1 dollar bill ("I lost a dollar. Did you find it?"). To prove her claim, the Boy asked her to accurately describe the bill, and as she peeked at the bill, she convinced him that the bill was hers, and he reluctantly returned it to her.

Then, a second impoverished older woman arrived to make the same claim about losing a $1 dollar bill. Without asking questions this time, the Boy gave the grateful elderly lady one of his own $1 dollar bills, and borrowed her handkerchief to wipe his tearful eyes. He had rapidly progressed from $2 dollars, to $3 dollars, and now back to $1 dollar. When a third, intimidating unshaven burly man arrived to look into the garbage pile, the disheartened Boy automatically handed over his remaining $1 dollar bill. To his surprise, the hairy, rough-looking thug handed back the measly $1 dollar bill, and then started digging through the garbage, where he found a lost wallet with a large amount of cash inside. As soon as the man departed with his windfall treasure-find, the Boy dove into the heap of trash to look for more, but came up empty-handed and unlucky.

The Boy took his sole $1 dollar bill next door to the candy store, and quickly purchased the small and cheaper $1 dollar box of chocolates. While walking over to his girlfriend's small-town bungalow house with the modest gift, he took out his pen and changed the price-tag (on the rear of the box) from $1 dollar to a higher value of $4 dollars, to impressively pretend that he was richer than he actually was. He hopped, skipped, and jumped to the porch's front door (decorated with lattice-work). She let him in and then they shyly entered the living room parlor together, as the Sheik (a rival suitor - experienced, over-aged and villainous) appeared, entered the front door without knocking, and spied unnoticed on the young lovers' gift-exchange on a sofa from behind a hallway curtain.

The hesitant and nervously-awkward adolescent Boy looked away from the Girl to appear nonchalant as he turned over the candy box to reveal the modified price tag, and then feigned indifference. Meanwhile, in the home's front hall-way, the deceitful Sheik purloined a gold watch (with chain) from one of the vest pockets of her father's hanging vest. To announce his marital intentions, the Boy slipped an engagement ring onto the 3rd finger of the Girl's left hand, then realized his mistake and moved it to her 4th finger and sat nervously next to her. She admired the tiny ring but was disconcerted because the mounted diamond jewel was so small that it was almost imperceptible. He produced his magnifying glass to help her inspect it - and enlarge its perceived size. While dumbly staring straight ahead, they both shyly and tentatively touched their hands together on the sofa.

In the meantime, the Sheik exited a local pawnbrokers shop (I. Goldman & Co.) after selling the stolen gold watch for $4 dollars, and returned to the candy shop to purchase the more-expensive $3 dollar box of candy. He returned to the Girl's home, barged into the living room, interrupted the young couple and presented the Girl with the immense, superior box of chocolates. He then motioned for the Girl to follow him into the adjoining dining room and closed the entryway's curtain behind them. The Boy was flustered that his girlfriend had immediately left him when another suitor arrived with a bigger box of candy. After sitting impatiently for a few moments, the Boy protested, but the Sheik dismissed him and handed him a banana as a consolation prize. The Boy peeled the banana, placed the banana skin on the floor in the man's expected pathway, and called the Sheik over - fully expecting him to slip and fall. However, he inadvertently stopped a foot away from the peel and avoided the trap. The Boy rose up in anger when he saw the Sheik kissing the Girl's hand, and accidentally slipped and fell on his own banana peel.

The Stolen Gold Watch:

The Girl's upset father alerted everyone in the house to the disappearance of his gold watch from his vest pocket ("Some one has stolen my watch"). Resolving to solve the crime, the Boy removed his detective tutorial manual and perused its pages. The Sheik looked over the Boy's shoulder and saw him studying a list of steps to take to become a detective (on page 3):


RULE 1. Search Everybody
RULE 2. Look for Clue
RULE 3. Examine all windows
RULE 4. Search for finger prints

Anticipating what would happen next (Rule # 1), the Sheik planted the pawnshop receipt for the stolen watch in the Boy's coat pocket - to deliberately frame him for the crime.

The Sheik then announced to everyone: "It looks like a job for the police." The Boy stood up and to prove his worth, he authoritatively ordered: "I'll take charge of this case and start by searching everybody." He began his search by inspecting the victim's pockets until being reminded: "Hey! - I'm the fellow who lost the watch." After everyone was searched and nothing was found, the Sheik suggested: "Why don't you search him, too?" The Boy's pocket was found to contain a $4 dollar receipt from the pawnshop (dated 10/23/1924) for a "Watch & Chain." The Sheik pointed out the incriminating, guilty-looking fact that the Boy's box of chocolates, marked $4 dollars, matched the amount of the pawned objects - this was enough solid proof or circumstantial evidence that the Boy was the thief. The Boy denied the charge, but it was hopeless. He was banished by the Girl's father ("I'm sorry, my boy, but we never want to see you in this house again").

The Sheik picked up the Boy's flattened porkpie hat on the floor, dusted it off, and handed it back to him. The Girl tearfully returned his ring in the front hallway. The Boy left the house with his crushed hat and ego.

Pursuit and Chase of the Sheik - Obstacles to Overcome:

Outside on the front porch, the disconsolate Boy was determined to solve the case. He consulted his detective manual one more time for advice on what to do next:

RULE 5. Shadow your man closely
RULE 6. Send for police
RULE 7. Keep cool

The Boy misinterpreted Rule 5's advice by taking it extremely literally. He pursued after the suspected real thief, the Sheik, as he left the house. He fell in or jumped right behind him, to follow and mirror each of his intricate movements and actions step-by-step. He paced after and directly 'shadowed' and impersonated his suspect (his left foot behind the Sheik's left foot, his right foot behind the Sheik's right foot, etc.) - moving in unison with him on the sidewalk. He even mimicked and copied every gesture, such as taking a drag upon the same cigarette found discarded on the ground, and screeching to an abrupt, forward-leaning halt in the middle of the road to avoid being struck by a vehicle.

[Note: The on-location exterior settings of the film revealed a small-town environment, although it was obviously set in the movie-land of Hollywood, a locale of illusory dream-making.]

At a railroad crossing near a train station, the Boy concealed himself behind the back of a freight train car to avoid being spotted and was almost squashed when another car backed up and attached itself. He continued to follow the Sheik and received an unexpected blast of hot steam from the locomotive. When the Sheik came up to a small staircase and ascended the stairs, the Boy (following directly behind him but slightly to the right, and not paying attention), slammed headlong into the wall next to the stairs. When the Sheik discovered that he was being trailed, the Boy pretended he just happened to be strolling by - and walked straight into the open door of one of the South Pacific Lines refrigerator cars next to the platform. The Sheik imprisoned the Boy inside by locking the door, just as the train began to move.

In one amazing sequence (one long tracking shot!), the Boy emerged atop the locked freight car through an upper trap door, and then rapidly walked to the right of the frame as the linked train cars were pulled to the left by the locomotive - he struggled to keep himself centered in the frame (to keep himself in the real-world), as if he was on an unending treadmill. As the string of freight cars began to accelerate more rapidly, the Boy was compelled to frantically run and gracefully hop across the tops of the boxcars.

To escape falling off the end of the last train car, the Boy jumped in mid-air onto a water spigot attached to a water tower or basin. The force of his weight, as he clung to the massive water faucet, gracefully pulled the entire apparatus down and extended it over the tracks - he also activated the water to flow within the lowered spout. A flood of hundreds of gallons of water was unleashed through the giant water faucet and deposited on the Boy's head, and his body was violently propelled downward onto the railroad tracks.

[Note: As a result of the serious injury he received during the stunt, a fractured neck, Buster Keaton continued with the scene. For the rest of his life, he suffered painful migraines.]

The sequence ended when two railroad employees, who rode into view on a small pumped handcart - and were soundly doused - they noticed the suspicious interloper and angrily pursued the Boy into a field and the far distance.

The Dejected, Failed Amateur Detective:

The next title card described the Boy's dejected and miserable state in the real-world of his theater job. He realized that he had incompetently bungled his attempt to act as a heroic detective, and to be a suitor to win his Girl's love and affection. He had failed to prove that he had been framed after he was falsely accused of stealing a gold watch - he had not cleared himself of a crime he didn't commit:

As a detective he was all wet, so he went back to see what he could do to his other job.

Looking demoralized, the Boy returned to the projection booth of his movie theater employment, where he prepared to load a film reel into the projector, to show the movie "Hearts and Pearls" for a packed house-audience that afternoon or evening.

Meanwhile, in a cutaway to a different scene, the Girl entered the pawnshop's address on Main Street (located on the receipt) and asked the proprietor: "Can you describe the man who pawned this watch?" Coincidentally, the Sheik happened to pause in front of the store (to light a cigarette) as the pawnbroker described the man's height and appearance (he had a mustache). He pointed at the Sheik to identify him as the one who had pawned her father's gold watch. In just a few minute's time, she had easily solved the mystery that the Boy had so ineptly and clumsily failed to accomplish. She gleefully left the pawnshop to tell the Boy of the good news.

[Note: The Girl heroine was the actual 'sleuth' who would solve the crime, long before the Boy figured out the set-up. However, the Boy would still have to experience a long dream sequence and save the Girl, to redeem himself.]

During the projection of the film in the theater, the Boy/Projectionist tired, dozed off and fell asleep in the projection room - he would experience a wish-fulfillment dream offering solutions to the mystery while imagining himself as a heroic and accomplished sleuth. However, he was unaware that the case had already been solved. While sitting on a stool next to the projector and resting his left cheek on his hand, he entered into a dream-world.

Entering into the Fantasy World of Cinema:

A brief excerpt of "Hearts and Pearls" was shown on the theatre's screen - it told the story of a stolen pearl necklace (from a locked safe) and two main characters - a lovely socialite and an aristocratic, tuxedo-wearing cad. As the Boy/Projectionist fell asleep in the booth, his ghostly or transparent doppelganger version of his resting body (via double-exposure) rose from the stool and looked through the viewing hole in the booth's wall at the projected film. In the film within a film, the two main characters on-screen turned their backs to the camera. After a slight jump-cut edit and dissolve, the two turned around to face the camera and revealed their transformation into the Boy's real-life acquaintances - they were replaced by the Girl and the Sheik. A third character who was upstairs was also transformed into the Girl's father.

Amazed by the sight of his acquaintances in the projected film, the Boy/Projectionist tried to alert his sleeping self, but was unable to get a reaction. He reached for his hat on a hook and put a second dream hat on his head (the real hat remained on the wall). In his dream, he walked down the center aisle of the theater toward the screen - unnoticed. A distant, long-shot camera perspective from the back of the theater watched as the Projectionist sat down in two different places in the audience to view the film from a closer angle.

And then during his out-of-body sleepwalking experience, when he saw the Girl and the Sheik kissing in her bedroom, the Boy excitedly reacted. He climbed up on the front railing, scrambled over the live music piano-player, and propelled himself headlong -- directly into the film's 'silver screen' by crossing through 'the fourth wall' - and he magically became a part of the scene as another story character. However, the Boy's nemesis, the Sheik (who seemed to be mistreating or advancing on the Girl in the bedroom), expelled him from the scene by tossing him directly back into the audience. Unassimilated into the scene, he bounced backward onto the stage, over the piano-player, and into the orchestra pit. At that very moment, the sleeping Projectionist twitched. Refusing to be intimidated and tossed away as an interloper into the scene, the persistent Boy made a second attempt to be admitted back into the screen.

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