In which we meet the world’s greatest detective and find an inception prequel.
I’ve always been drawn to anything related to Sherlock Holmes since I first read my way through every story in my teens. From the BBC’s Sherlock, through Guy Ritchie, Chris Columbus’ Young Sherlock Holmes and all the way back to Basil Rathbone in the 30s and 40s, if it’s a Holmes film I’ll watch it.
Sherlock Jr was until recently a missing film in my efforts. Like many of the early silent films I had an interest in seeing it, but never had the motivation. It’s also only tangentially linked to Holmes, in title and the character Buster Keaton plays being the world’s greatest detective.
As ever, Keaton performed his own stunts for the film – going as far as knocking himself out as he swung from the top of a moving train onto a water tower. Nine years later he was told that he’d broken his neck in the accident. His dedication pays off as this is another classic of American silent cinema, on par with The General and Steamboat Bill Jr.
The film follows two overlapping stories, one in the real world and the other within a dream of the main character as he sleeps in a cinema projection booth. In the real world, Keaton’s character is thrown out of his fiancés house after being framed for stealing her father’s watch by another suitor. Dozing off at work, Keaton finds himself stepping into a film and taking on the character of Sherlock Jr who attempts to solve a similar crime.
It’s incredible to think that in 1924, in the infancy of cinema, Keaton made a film-within-a-film. The moments where he’s unwittingly transported as the scenes change, knocking him over and sending him falling into the sea are both hilarious and searingly clever. The technical achievement is amazing, requiring Keaton to be in exactly the right place with perfect timing for the jokes to work
This cinematic sophistication is highlighted by David Parkinson in Empire, who notes that Sherlock Jr is “a deceptively serious study of fantasy and reality, life and art.” We tend to think of films like The Purple Rose of Cairo and Inception breaking new ground as they deconstruct film, fantasy and dreams – but Keaton was already working his magic on 1924.
Even something like 1990s flopbuster Last Action Hero borrows from Sherlock Jr, with its similar themes of jumping between real life and fiction (just with more cartoon cats and one-liners). In fact, there are more literary echoes of the same in Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang – from the same screenwriter, Shane Black.
Sherlock Jr was Keaton’s first notable failure with audiences, leading him to consider it one of his lesser achievements. While it’s less showy that say The General with fewer outrageous stunts (thought one where he swings from a rooftop to the back of a car is extraordinary), it’s a smarter and sweeter film than his others. Perhaps his most well-rounded masterpiece, the best word to describe it is impeccable.
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