Sherlock Jr. - Buster Keaton - book - detective manual

Sherlock Jr.
1924, directed by Buster Keaton

Sherlock Jr. opens onto a movie theater where Buster Keaton sits alone in the back row absorbed in a book. To a cinema audience this picture must register on some level as a mirror image – one cinema looking into another, the fictional one probably less lively than the real because it’s so empty. The next shot closes in on Keaton reading How To Be a Detective, and this too is like a mirror image. Most viewers have come for a taste of the excitement missing from their lives, and that’s exactly what Keaton seeks as well… he’s a lowly projectionist, a wage earner dreaming of a more heroic profession.

Later, halfway through Sherlock Jr., in the same movie theater, this reflection will reverse itself. With the camera pointed in the opposite direction, a film within the film will mirror the recent events in the young projectionist’s life, and in a dream state he’ll cross into the fictional screen to continue his own story in a more dramatic fashion. The inner film, like so many real Hollywood films, will indulge the young man’s fantasy, elevating him into a more prosperous world and allowing him to play the hero, but the larger film that contains it has a different agenda. To put it as simply as possible, the aim of Sherlock Jr. is to ground its audience in reality, counteracting the prevailing current of Hollywood’s influence.

Sherlock Jr. - Buster Keaton - Kathryn McGuire - dog - sprinkler

Immediately after we catch Keaton in the back row fantasizing about being a detective, he’s thrust into a harsh social and economic reality. His boss comes in and scolds him, ordering him to clean up the theater before he cleans up any mysteries. The following sequence, while setting up the plot and establishing the young man’s good nature, reminds us again and again that he stands at an economic disadvantage to the world around him. The girl he loves belongs to a higher class; she’s introduced at leisure, sitting on a landscaped lawn with a big dog and a sprinkler, and her father is so well off that he hires a servant to do nothing. Keaton wants to woo her with a box of chocolates, but he’s a dollar short. Back in the theater lobby his boss walks out, flipping through a loaded billfold. Keaton finds a dollar bill in the trash he’s swept up, but his luck turns into a net loss as he returns the dollar to its owner then gives one of his own to an old woman who also lost a dollar. Even the scruffy man who comes in next, an apparent vagrant, turns out to be richer than Keaton, scoffing at the boy’s last dollar and finding his own wallet full of banknotes in the trash heap.

Here the boy’s rival is introduced, the “local sheik”, a suave and more masculine fellow who also lacks the three dollars for the chocolates, but that doesn’t bother the “sheik”. He’ll make up for it with crime, stealing the girl’s father’s watch, pawning it for four dollars, and pinning the theft on Keaton. Switching into detective mode, Keaton shadows the thief, following him across town in a choreographed foot chase, comically mimicking the man’s smallest movements about half a meter behind him. The mimicry is so close that it insinuates a possible danger – he could easily be tempted to become like his criminal rival. Luckily he’s saved from this fate. The suspected thief catches him, and he abandons his efforts at crime solving until his dream begins.

Sherlock Jr. - Buster Keaton - Ward Crane - shadowing

The full transition between the boy’s reality and his fantasy in the inner film lasts over five minutes and is carefully constructed. It begins in the projection booth when the boy turns the machine on and the inner film (Hearts & Pearls) gets underway. It’s obvious enough that the film mirrors real life, substituting the familiar roles neatly and substituting a stolen pearl necklace for the father’s four-dollar watch… but the boy’s dream, replacing the projected film on the screen, transforms his recent experience with hidden precision. Angered to find his rival and his beloved together, he steps across the threshold of the screen only to get booted off before re-entering, re-staging the earlier moment when he had crossed the curtains in the girl’s house to impose himself before being rudely sent back to the living room with a banana in hand, a coded suggestion to satisfy himself sexually.

Before the adventurous dream tale begins in earnest, the boy must endure a surreal series of trials, still framed by the movie theater’s proscenium, organ, and front rows of seating. At first the door to the girl’s mansion is held onscreen far too long while he stands there, shut outside. It’s a simple joke at the movie’s expense, but it continues as he finds himself batted around within a surreal shot sequence, bouncing him from the garden to a busy street, a rugged mountainscape, a jungle with lions, a desert, a rough sea, deep snow, then back to the garden before reality turns normal again – leaving him behind until he re-enters as a dapper detective. The sequence does several things at once. First, it supplies a series of laughs. Second, the capricious editing reminds us of the artifice of cinema, how movies depart from reality even when they mean to make us forget that. Third, it disrupts the rhythm, allowing the film to leave Buster Keaton behind for a while and enter his dream fully, zooming in gently so that the proscenium vanishes almost at the exact midpoint of Sherlock Jr.

Sherlock Jr. - Buster Keaton - Kathryn McGuire - Joe Keaton - Ward Crane - Erwin Connelly - Hearts and Pearls

A fourth reason for this surreal passage is more compelling. By yanking the boy out of the story momentarily then taking him from civilization to raw nature and back, it gives him a kind of rebirth, making it almost credible when he emerges later in coattails, top hat, and gloved hands as a famous detective. Later, as the film gears up for its climax, he’ll go through a more literal rebirth – equally nonsensical – when he escapes his enemies by leaping into the stomach of his assistant through a trick door in a tie salesman’s open briefcase.

Still there’s another point about this mad sequence of wild backgrounds. It continues a pattern already established, which will become stronger in the climactic chase as the boy confronts a gang and rescues the girl. True to the film’s purpose of grounding its audience in reality, it constantly dances around the line between the real and the dramatic – and every time water appears, it returns us – or someone – to reality. The sprinkler in the girl’s yard is like a picturesque fountain, reminding us of the boy’s comparative penury. His first (and only real-life) adventure as a detective comes to an end when he’s doused under a railroad tank. The intertitle calls attention to water’s role in this pattern: “As a detective he was all wet, so he went back to see what he could do to his other job.” Again, the absurdist sequence in the big transition ends with water – violent waves crashing around the rocky islet, and deep snow – before returning Keaton to reality in the garden.

Sherlock Jr. - Buster Keaton - water tower
Sherlock Jr. - Buster Keaton - island - waves - ocean
Sherlock Jr. - Buster Keaton - Kathryn McGuire - car - river

Water appears four times in the final chase, each time bringing someone down to earth. First, the detective’s assistant Gillette (dressed as a cop) falls off the motorcycle while crossing a ditch, leaving Keaton alone on the handlebars, still trusting in his driver. The runaway motorcycle knocks over a woman in a wet crossing and a pair of men in a stream, and the projectionist’s dream ends when he and the girl ditch a car in a lake and start sinking. The boy wakes up making desperate swimming motions on the projectionist’s stool. The pattern is most telling though when it’s broken. Riding the motorcycle across one bridge, the boy is lucky to make it across a gap when two large trucks pass through, filling the precariously empty space. It’s precisely because the bridge crosses a dry riverbed that he’s not brought down to earth.

Sherlock Jr. - Buster Keaton - Kathryn McGuire - projection booth - ending

The point of all this is to draw our attention as often as possible, with a sense of humor to make it palatable, to the reality behind the fantasy that cinema customarily presents. The film’s signature punchline, the close brush with danger, is one way of foregrounding the artifice of fantasy. Sherlock Jr. is an extended exercise in deflation, urging us to believe that the imaginary “better life” that movies so often present is not worth the price. The villain gets his nickname “the local sheik” from the 1921 Rudolph Valentino hit The Sheik, insinuating that the romantic desire to live like a movie star is socially problematic, leading people if not into outright crime then at least tempting them with an unrealistic vision of life. Keaton’s character begins as a dreamer, aspiring to live the glamorous life of the famous detective Sherlock Holmes, who was already a staple of film adaptations including a 1922 version with John Barrymore. His real wish however is to win the love of the girl played by Kathryn McGuire, who’s ironically a better detective than he is – but when he finally gets this wish at the end, the film quickly brings him down to reality. Looking down from the projection booth, in a coda scarcely more likely to appear onscreen than all the absurd nature footage earlier, he sees the hero and heroine of Hearts & Pearls after their wedding, the new husband happily bouncing a pair of twins on his lap. Keaton scratches his head, realizing for the first time that life with his beloved would be more than just an endless romance.


Warning Shadows – Film within the film that reflects and continues the preceding story

Modern Times – Protagonist enters a symbolic womb and emerges reborn

A Woman Is a Woman – Intent to expose the artifice of cinema