Movie 277 - My Go To Recommendation for an Intro to Buster Keaton & Silent Cinema in General
Sherlock, Jr. (Dir. Buster Keaton, 1924)
Joseph Frank Keaton, whom the world would know by his stage name Buster Keaton, was born on this day in 1895. Keaton was born into a vaudeville family, and joined the family act at the age of three. He transitioned from vaudeville to film, like many comedians of the era, making his debut in the 1917 Fatty Arbuckle film “The Butcher Boy.” The action comedies he would later star in, as well as do some combination of writing and/or directing for, were innovative and ambitious. Keaton’s films were never critically or commercially lauded during the peak of his career. He weathered the coming of sound better than most, but not the loss of his creative control. Alcoholism overtook him for decades until his third wife Eleanor helped him not only overcome his addiction but get work at a time when his contributions to cinema were being realized and appreciated.
My interest in Keaton’s work began with “Benny & Joon,” and wanting to know the inspiration behind the ‘90s flick about a pair of misfits who fall in love. The first Keaton film I ever saw was “The General,” and between that film and everything I read about the guy, I kinda fell in love with him. As I explained in my post on “The General:”
“Keaton is my favorite silent film actor. At 5’4” and change the stone faced gent doesn’t look like much, but he was ripped and wiry, and as mechanically proficient as he was with physical comedy. The guy inspired Jackie Chan for a reason.”
Douglas Fairbanks? Rudolph Valentino? No, give me Buster Keaton any day of the week! Plus, how do you not love a guy that was an analog techie, and loved trains and baseball? Pity he had such awful taste in women early in his life. (Seriously, read up on his marriage with Natalie Talmadge, that whole episode of his life is awful and messed up for both parties.)
Anyway, enough of me counting the ways I love Keaton. Let’s talk about why “Sherlock, Jr.” is my go-to case study for his greatness, and silent cinema in general.
When my friend theinnkeeperlibrarian told me she wanted to learn more about silent film, I wasn’t sure what a good point of entry would be. Science fiction fan that she is, she wanted to see “A Trip to the Moon” (“Le Voyage dans la Lune,” Dir. Georges Melies, 1902), which is a great early film. However, for such a diverse era of filmmaking, where to begin to show what made silent cinema unique relative to sound cinema and why it continues to be compelling to this day?
I asked my L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation classmate, the Boy Genius, since he is quite the devotee of silent cinema, what he thought was a good entry point into that era of cinema. He advised me to show the Inn Keeper Librarian “Sherlock, Jr.,” because it was engaging and only 45 minutes. I had seen the film before, and while it’s not as flashy as the hurricane sequence in “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” or as epic as “The General,” it highlights everything Keaton did well and if a person doesn’t like it, they only lost 45 minutes of their life. To this day, the economy of “Sherlock, Jr.” is a selling point I use on people who are skeptical they will get into it.
“Sherlock, Jr.” builds slowly: Keaton plays a projectionist, who aspires to be a detective, who is trying to court a local Girl (Kathryn McGuire) despite his modest means and her receiving attention from the Local Sheik (Ward Crane). The first part of the film introduces the frame story and the fact that the Local Sheik is dishonest, and that dishonesty gets projected onto, well, the Projectionist. Rebuffed by his girl, the Projectionist goes to work, and that’s where the film becomes really interesting. While projecting a film he falls asleep and his consciousness wanders onto the screen via a bunch of camera tricks that are indebted to magician-filmmaker Georges Melies’s work. (Keaton, like Melies, loved experimenting with motion picture technology and tricks of the medium, and it’s fully on display in this sequence.) The dream sequence then transitions into a detective drama in which the projectionist is the famed detective Sherlock Jr., the Local Sheik is a dastardly villain and the Girl is, well, still the Girl, but fancier. More camera tricks, slapstick and stunts abound, including a sequence where Keaton is riding on the handlebars of a motorcycle. His reaction when he realizes that the motorcycle’s driver fell off resulted in the Inn Keeper Librarian delivering the best reaction I’ve ever heard to Keaton’s acting ever: “Why are his eyes screaming?”
Needless to say, “Sherlock, Jr.” helped the Inn Keeper Librarian realize the appeal of silent cinema and Keaton. We later went to a bunch of silent film screenings, including Keaton’s “Our Hospitality,” which had a sequence that left us laughing for minutes after its completion. It was with she that we coined the term to describe Keaton’s mechanic mastery “analog techie.” Despite how the term “techie” has become something of a pejorative in the Bay Area, I continue to maintain it sums up Keaton’s skillset, apart from his athletic skill, beautifully.
As of the date of this post, most of Keaton’s feature films, including “Sherlock, Jr.,” are up on Netflix Streaming. If you’ve never seen a silent film period, or just haven’t seen any of his films, I highly recommend “Sherlock, Jr.” as a starting point, then give “The General” a go.