Sherlock Jr. is a Buster Keaton classic. At just 45 minutes, it is short, but packed with action and innovation. The stunts are astounding. At a time before CGI, I have no idea how he did this stuff. So I started digging around to try to understand it better.
Sherlock Jr. is about a projectionist who wants to be a detective. He proposes to his lady love but by doing so irks her other suitor who frames Keaton in a robbery of the girl’s father’s pocket watch.
In the first amazing sequence, Keaton follows the other suitor to try and investigate. This involves a Keaton-usual where he walks within an inch of a person he’s following, every movement synchronized. How? The detailed video deconstruction (below) reveals that they set the camera to roll at a slower frame per second (FPS) to record the action and then sped it up to normal speed (24 FPS) for viewing.
In real life, he’s a pretty pathetic detective and doesn’t get very far. But when Keaton the projectionist falls asleep at the projector, his dream “avatar” enters the movie being projected. After Keaton is thrown from location to location (Africa, the ski slopes, in the middle of traffic) at the whim of the director, he is then allowed to become the super-duper detective of his dreams (pun intended of course).
The stunts then take on a new level of cool – in an exquisitely choreographed move, he jumps out of a window, through a dress and emerges full clothed as an old woman. Unbelievable. From The Comic Mind by Gerald Mast:
Perhaps the most brilliant Keaton far shot to reveal a process (and what a process!) is in Sherlock Jr. (1924). A single far shot presents (1) a room where Buster is surrounded by thugs (Keaton has dissolved its fourth wall); (2) an open window with a paper hoop that Buster previously placed in it; and (3) the exterior of the house outside the window. In a single shot Buster dashes toward the window (1), leaps through it, through the hoop resting inside the window frame (2), somehow puts on a dress stuffed inside the hoop as he is tumbling through it in midair, rights himself on the group outside the house (3), and begins to impersonate an old beggar woman, since he is now wearing a dress. Without the far shot, it would be impossible t believe that a human being could turn himself into a beggar woman while in midair tumbling through a hoop; it would also be impossible to believe that any comic acrobat could perform such a stunt. Apart from the mechanical performance of the stunt, there is the idea behind it. Who else would think of escaping his foes in such an incredible way and with such an incredible means to an incredible disguise? Keaton’s far shot makes incredibility to the third power completely credible.
Then there’s the one where he leaps through the stomach of a vendor woman and disappears. How? Search as I might I couldn’t find the answer.
But by far the most brilliant sequence of the whole film is where he rides solo on the handlebars of a motorcycle (not knowing the driver has fallen off). This is not a short sequence – he drives through crowds, over bridges and through long stretches of road, all the while “steering” the two-wheeler from his precarious position. Undercranked or not, this is superb stuff. All of these sequences are in the clip below –
A combination of the stunts, the humor and the real life/reel life comparisons (hey, it wasn’t a cliche back then – he invented this stuff!) make Sherlock Jr. more than a fun, engaging movie to watch. And understanding how Keaton achieved some of the scenes elevates it to the realm of the exquisite.