Following last week’s screening of Chaplin’s THE GOLD RUSH, the Brattle Theatre is screening Buster Keaton’s SHERLOCK JR. tonight and tomorrow as part of its repertory series based on the documentary, THE STORY OF FILM.
As half of a double feature that covers the birth of cinema, SHERLOCK JR. is remarkably sophisticated. Clocking in at under an hour, our hero Keaton solves a mystery, falls into a movie, and must win back the hand of his love interest all before a fade to black. Its breakneck pace was standard for the era of short comedy features and one-reelers (around 20 minute shorts). The following year, Chaplin would release THE GOLD RUSH with a decadent 90 minutes in run time. However there’s no time for lulls in SHERLOCK JR., positioned from the start with jokes ready to set off a chain of events. Not a word is spoken (it’s a silent comedy), but it’s perfect this way. The audience gets to fill in what’s going on by context clues with the help of intertitles. It’s our own little mystery as a modern audiences unused to watching movies without dialogue.
But Keaton is a different comedic craftsman than Chaplin. He never smiles. His listless expressions are up to the viewer to interpret. Chaplin overacts: he cries, he laughs, he flirts, and there is no confusion or subtly about it. Both were meticulous about the gags in their films. Chaplin would often fashion ordinary items into different devices, but Keaton would construct elaborate mechanical gags with camera tricks. He does this in SHERLOCK JR. when he falls into the silver screen and into the throws of a movie, an action-packed mystery. It’s akin to a reverse on the plot of Woody Allen’s PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO, and Keaton’s reality becomes that of the movies. Not to ruin the scene-changing gag, but remember that this was 1924 and the only tools Keaton had at his disposal were surveyor’s tools and scissors for editing by hand. The scene’s flawless appearance gives the impression that he does all the traveling in the movie within the movie. The movement from location to location doesn’t waver, which is even more impressive when you realize that cameras were also hand-cranked at the time.
SHERLOCK JR. is a personal favorite of mine, and not just because the main character gets to fall into the world of movie magic. It’s charming as an antique piece (movie tickets at $.40!) and as a comedy. Much of the struggle Keaton experiences, like losing out to a competitor, is relatable. Most of us might not be as rich or powerful as the next guy over, but we are who we are. There’s something American about rooting for the underdog, even if it’s just to see him smile. -Monica Castillo
SHERLOCK JR screens tonight and tomorrow, 7/9 -7/10, at 5:30 PM and 9:15 PM. The Brattle Theatre, 40 Brattle Street, Cambridge MA. 02138