The shortest of Buster Keaton’s features, the 45-minute Sherlock Jr. is only five minutes longer than the Oscars’ stated limit for short films (not that they existed back then). It had been conceived and shot as a six-reel feature, but Keaton deleted two of those when the film tested poorly. In his hugely insightful and enthusiastic commentary for this Eureka Masters of Cinema reissue, David Kalat notes that this makes it the same length as two of Keaton’s two-reel shorts. The duality is nothing if not appropriate. One of the first metafictional films, Kalat suggests reading Sherlock Jr. as two vaudeville acts – one comedy act and one magic show.
Keaton was always heavily influenced by vaudeville. His father, Joe Keaton, was a celebrated vaudeville performer who appeared in a lot of his films, including this one. Sherlock Jr. sees Keaton Snr. essentially reprising his role from Keaton’s earlier short film Day Dreams, as the disapproving father of the girl Keaton’s hero is looking to woo. Day Dreams also features a throwaway gag where Keaton stands in front of a movie screen and is mistaken for a character in the film, a joke which is expanded into one of Sherlock Jr.’s main set pieces. In this sequence, which Woody Allen cited as an inspiration for The Purple Rose of Cairo, Keaton’s weary projectionist dreams of walking into the movie he’s showing, before being transported around several stock movie landscapes. Its precision and technical skill is still hugely impressive today.
Depending on where you start measuring from, moving pictures were around thirty or thirty-five years old at the time of Sherlock Jr., and nobody was more attentive to their emerging cliches than Keaton. In the early segment of the film – set in something approaching reality – Keaton is introduced wearing a false moustache, a ludicrous disguise that fools no-one. Once he has entered the movie world, though, the disguise proves impenetrable.
Some of Keaton’s targets are still fresh today. As the title suggests, the pop-cultural figure of the master detective is central to the parody. Now that Arthur Conan Doyle adaptations seem to pitch Sherlock Holmes as something only a hair beneath a superhero, there’s a subversive pleasure in seeing Keaton pedantically consult his slim paperback “How to Be a Detective” for supposedly rational deductive techniques that only pay off once he dreams he’s in the irrational world of the movies.
The petty mystery Keaton’s character is trying to solve in the real world is cracked without his help, a narrative mirror of the insane good luck that typifies his stunt work. In one sequence, Keaton is stuck on a runaway motorcycle going over a bridge. The middle of the bridge is missing, but fortunately as Keaton gets to this part two lorries drive through it, briefly forming a surface for him to pass over. Kalat’s description of the movie-within-the-movie as a magic act feels appropriate here; the Keaton of Sherlock Jr. values gasps of shock and admiration from the audience as much as he does actual laughs. It’s an unusual attitude for a comedy film – maybe John Landis is the only contemporary inheritor of this tradition – but it does, once again, point up the vaudeville influence that underpins his work.
So Sherlock Jr. is a film that uses then-cutting-edge, still remarkable film-making techniques to enshrine the values of an older art form. It also points the way ahead to films of the future. A scene where Keaton runs across the roof of a train is a clear influence on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and – taking it right up to date – the obviously silent-comedy-homaging Paddington 2. The Surrealists were also fascinated by its shifting realities, pointing to the parallels between the film the hero dreams and his waking life as an early example of Freudianism in the cinema. Keaton was flattered by the regard his work was held in by the avant-garde, coming out of retirement for Samuel Beckett’s sole directorial effort Film. His own values, though, were forged by the theatre and the big top, and Sherlock Jr. should be held less as an experimental think-piece and more as a breathless, lighter-than-air novelty. Except…
Underneath the playfulness with which Keaton ribs movie genres, there’s a reservoir of real poison. Day Dreams, the earlier short which Sherlock Jr. takes as a starting point, was co-written by Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, who in between the two films was falsely blamed by the press for the death of a young woman at a party he attended. Keaton was furious at his friend’s victimisation, and made several attempts to get his career back on track. In later years, Keaton would claim that Arbuckle co-directed Sherlock Jr. but his credit was left off for fear of backlash. Whatever the truth, Keaton himself would have plenty of trouble with the Hollywood machine later on. It’s a history that’s explored on a featurette which rounds out this handsome, well-contextualised restoration of a film that was far ahead of its time.