Sunday, August 6, 2017

Buster Keaton | Sherlock, Jr.

into the picture
by Douglas Messerli

Clyde Bruckman, Jean Havez, and Joseph A. Mitchell, Buster Keaton (director, William Goodrich [Roscoe Arbuckle], uncredited) Sherlock, Jr. / 1924

Long before Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), in which an actor, bored with the role he is playing on film, escapes into the real world, Buster Keaton’s young film projectionist (Keaton himself), falls asleep and, in his dream, attempts to enter the film, playing the role that in real life he is studying for, that of a detective.

Since he is in a dream, the film he enters, at first is much like a surrealist nightmare, a collage of a garden, an urban street, a mountain cliff, a jungle of lions, and a desert, all of which endanger the projectionist’s existence as he moves fluidly from scene to scene (to assure perfect continuity, the cameraman and technical director used surveying instruments to figure out the precise position where the actor was required to stand in order to move on to the next scene).

     Finally—after the actual characters, now resembling the projectionist’s girlfriend (Kathryn McGuire), her father (Joe Keaton), the evil “local sheik” (Ward Crane), and other figures—regain control of the story, they call for Sherlock, Jr., the would-be detective projectionist to solve the theft of the heroine’s pearls.

     Earlier in the surrounding story the projectionist himself has wrongly been accused of stealing the father’s watch, which was actually pawned by the local sheik; so the crazy series of adventures our hero now undergoes—involving a motorcycle which loses its driver (leaving Keaton speeding down the street on a wheel and handlebars), a train top escape via a water tank tube (wherein Keaton actually broke his neck without knowing it), and a car that when it accidentally enters a river miraculously becomes a boat (long before the famous scene in the series on James Bond)—allow him the possibility, at least imaginatively, to redeem himself. Certainly, Keaton never worked harder on screen to please us.

     In between Keaton takes himself and Sherlock’s assistant Gillette, into dozens of terrifying encounters and escapes, performed with such magic that the film still baffles special effect directors today. Poisons, sword-blades, and a billiard game with an explosive 13 ball follow.

     Of course, the cinema-bound projectionist wins the day, returning the pearls to the girl’s father, and is awarded the love of the girl herself.

     In real life, however, just as in so many of Keaton’s films, it is really the girl who saves the man. While the projectionist dreams, the girl has visited the pawn shop to discover that it was not the projectionist who pawned her father’s watch but her other suitor.

     The projectionist awakens to her visit, and is able to use the final scene of the film he is showing to romantically instruct him on to romance his sweetheart.

      Keaton’s amazing recognition of cinema as being a strange mix of absurd narrative constructions with, nonetheless, true restorative realities to its audience, was way ahead of its time. Keaton’s always hapless heroes may have little control of their lives, but through the magic of movies regain control over the worlds in which they live, allowing them, so to speak, to get back into the picture.

      Many of the moviegoers of 1924 apparently did not find this movie as funny as other Keaton works, and although the film made a profit, it was far less successful than most of his previous creations. Perhaps, in demonstrating many of the tricks of moviemaking, or, at least, exploring them on screen, Keaton distracted audiences of the day simply seeking mindless entertainment. The problem, of course, still exists today. Really fine films often fail at the boxoffice, while mindless blockbusters rake in millions. Over the years, however, sophisticated audiences have come to perceive just how much of a genius Keaton was. This movie is one of several that have been added to the National Film Registry.

     I should add that the score of this silent film as captured on the Kino DVD I viewed, was composed and performed by the Club Foot Orchestra; with the score’s references to the Jazz era in which the film was created and, at one point, even to the scores of the James Bond movies, it was near perfect, and greatly added to the film’s general delights.

August 6, 2017

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