Director: Buster Keaton
Production: Metro Pictures and Buster Keaton Productions; black and white, 35mm, silent; running time: about 45 minutes. Released April 1924.
Producer: Joseph M. Schenck; scenario: Clyde Bruckman, Jean Haves, and Joseph Mitchell; photography: Elgin Lessley and Bryon Houck; editor: Buster Keaton; art director: Fred Gabourie; costumes: Clare West.
Buster Keaton (
); Kathryn McGuire (
); Ward Crane (
); Joseph Keaton (
Keaton, Buster, with Charles Samuels, My Wonderful World of Slapstick , New York, 1960.
Pantieri, José, L'originalissimo Buster Keaton , Milan, 1963.
Turconi, Davide, and Francesco Savio, Buster Keaton , Venice, 1963.
Oms, Marcel, Buster Keaton , Lyons, 1964.
Coursodon, Jean-Pierre, Keaton et compagnie: Les Burlesques américaines du "muet, " Paris, 1964.
Blesh, Rudi, Keaton , New York, 1966.
Lebel, Jean-Pierre, Buster Keaton , New York, 1967.
McCaffrey, Donald, Great Comedians , New York, 1968.
Robinson, David, Buster Keaton , London, 1968.
Anthologie du cinéma 7 , Paris, 1971.
Mast, Gerald, The Comic Mind , New York, 1973; revised edition, Chicago, 1979.
Coursodon, Jean-Pierre, Buster Keaton , Paris, 1973; revised edition, 1986.
Kerr, Walter, The Silent Clowns , New York, 1975.
Anobile, Richard, editor, The Best of Buster , New York, 1976.
Wead, George, Buster Keaton and the Dynamics of Visual Wit , New York, 1976.
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Wead, George, and George Ellis, The Film Career of Buster Keaton , Boston, 1977.
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Kline, Jim, The Complete Films of Buster Keaton , Secaucus, 1993.
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* * *
Although he had been popular with critics and the public for several years, Buster Keaton became a major star with The Navigator , released after Sherlock, Jr . Nevertheless, Sherlock, Jr . is a masterpiece. It contains a story within a story, through which Keaton deals with opposition central to Western culture: dream versus reality, and reality versus art.
The film starts routinely. Beginning the dream/reality opposition, we learn that Keaton yearns to be a detective, but works merely as a projectionist. The action of the story is instigated by the announcement of a missing object. The watch belonging to the father of Keaton's girlfriend has been stolen, and as Keaton is the prime suspect, the father expels him from the house. Developing a narrative around the absence (the watch) and an expulsion of the hero is much like nineteenth-century melodrama. Even in comedies, though, this structure is not extraordinary.
After Keaton's expulsion, the film takes on a less traditional structure. Keaton falls asleep on the job. In a dream, he looks out the projectionist's window, and sees his girlfriend, her father, and his rival as performers in a film. Though the dream mirrors "real life," there are some significant changes. The setting is aristocratic, and instead of a watch, a necklace is missing. The biggest change is with Keaton himself. Awake he is only an aspiring investigator with little Holmesian ability, but once he enters the story of the film within the film, he becomes a master detective.
After the dream begins, Sherlock, Jr . takes on characteristics of an avant-garde film. The projectionist walks to the screen, and tries to become part of the film. Like a film spectator suspending disbelief, Keaton is fooled by the realistic effect of the cinema, so much so that he cannot separate life from the movies. However, unlike the ordinary spectator, Keaton is able to participate in the film he watches. This, however, has its hazards. As he is about to enter a house, the scene cuts to an African veldt where Keaton confronts a lion. Another cut places Keaton in a snowbank; with another he is transported to the ocean. Upon entering the film within the film, the projectionist believed he would be taking part in a narrative as neat and linear as his real life one. Instead, he is at the mercy of the most artificial of cinematic devices, the cut, which allows for instant changes of locale, or the ellision of large chunks of time.
A normal story eventually returns, and Keaton (the detective) solves the mystery. A normal visual style returns, too. During the quick-cutting sequence, the movie screen, the curtain around it, and the theater audience were visible in the frame. Once the detective story begins, however, the camera moves in, no longer showing any of the theater or the edges around the screen. The film within the film (Keaton's dream) comes to look just like the character's "real life" (the beginning, when Keaton works as a projectionist). Thus, art seems to imitate life.
When Keaton awakes, his girlfriend visits him in the projectionist's booth, and tells him he has been absolved of all guilt in the watch theft. Keaton looks at the film he has been showing, and sees a man and woman reconciling. He watches for instructions, doing everything the man does, kissing his girlfriend only after the man and woman have kissed on the screen. Here, in a final blurring of the two, life imitates art.