Film 7: Sherlock Jr.

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Sherlock, Jr. (1924) dir. Buster Keaton.  USA.

(NB: We switched film 7 and 8 on our docket for timing purposes.  They were both released in 1924.)

‘The greatest of the silent clowns is Buster Keaton, not only because of what he did, but because of how he did it. Harold Lloyd made us laugh as much, Charlie Chaplin moved us more deeply, but no one had more courage than Buster. I define courage as Hemingway did: “Grace under pressure.” In films that combined comedy with extraordinary physical risks, Buster Keaton played a brave spirit who took the universe on its own terms, and gave no quarter.

[…]It’s said that Chaplin wanted you to like him, but Keaton didn’t care. I think he cared, but was too proud to ask. His films avoid the pathos and sentiment of the Chaplin pictures, and usually feature a jaunty young man who sees an objective and goes after it in the face of the most daunting obstacles. Buster survives tornadoes, waterfalls, avalanches of boulders and falls from great heights, and never pauses to take a bow: He has his eye on his goal. And his movies, seen as a group, are like a sustained act of optimism in the face of adversity; surprising how, without asking, he earns our admiration and tenderness.’

Abigail:  I love Buster Keaton.  You can see his artist mind working, even as he is playing – well, himself.  This was a particularly fun romp – his lady love has a wealthier suitor, who is actually stealing from her father to pay for her trinkets.  The suitor frames Keaton for one of his thefts.  Keaton, a projectionist and amateur detective, resolves to prove himself innocent.  In actuality, he solves nothing with his dreamed antics, and his lady love solves everything with a quick jaunt to the pawn shop.  His outwitting of the dastardly other suitor is ambitious and death defying, though downplayed to the audience as a mere dream.  This seems to be Keaton’s method – don’t pause for the laugh, don’t show how hard it is, they’ll get it.  It makes his films tighter, cleverer – and feel sleek and modern, even a hundred years later. And, boy, is he a treat to watch.

Forrest: Is it possible to be unhappy while watching a Buster Keaton film?  I have now seen two of them, and upon this scanty evidence I believe the answer must be a definitive “No.”  He makes movies of such impeccable craftsmanship and quiet confidence that even the most hardened misanthrope cannot watch unmoved.  The man is, simply, a genius.  The stunts in “Sherlock, Jr.” boggle the mind, the story clips along without a wasted frame (the whole thing’s only 45 mins), and the biggest laugh is the last shot.  At the risk of repeating my “Safety Last!” invective — go watch this film.

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