Buster (Buster Keaton) is a projectionist who dreams big: he has his heart set on being a detective, and to that goal has been studying the course any chance he gets, his nose buried in an instructional guide book. Unfortunately, his boss is less than impressed and has to keep on at him to sweep up around the theatre, which he does though he yearns to get back to his notes. Another pressing matter is that he wishes he had enough money to pay for a nice present for his girlfriend (Kathryn McGuire); he has bought he an engagement ring with the world's smallest diamond on it, but a box of chocolates wouldn't go amiss either. If only he knew the trouble he was about to get into...
It's easy to praise Buster Keaton when he gave us material like Sherlock Jr to watch, a weird, hilarious and frequently amazing love letter to the movies and movie fans who use them to escape their troubles for a while and imagine themselves in situations where they could be in control, the hero or heroine of their own story with an answer to every problem that arose. Of course, the irony was that Keaton was as much a dreamer as any of those fans, and his dedication to cinema would almost be the death of him as his attempts to wrangle his career proved more difficult for him, a genius who simply wanted to tell stories his way, than any of his silent movie protagonists.
Knowing of the star's troubles has somehow made him more sympathetic than his nearest rivals Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, both of whom faced setbacks with the advent of sound, but managed far better than Keaton ever did. When we see Buster in this, the perennial little man who refuses to buckle under the pressures and misfortunes of life, we can, if we have any empathy at all, identify with his struggles and as he exaggerated those for comic effect, we can also thoroughly enjoy his paths through them and his eventual triumph over them, all shaded with an awareness of how ridiculous we could be in the face of life's slings and arrows. It wasn't a case of if we didn't laugh we’d cry, it was more you may as well laugh while you can.
Films like Sherlock Jr helped us achieve that, and it was accurate to call this Keaton's masterpiece, a joyous forty-five minutes of outrageousness and absurdity that would be the most obvious example of Keaton's status as the greatest silent movie comedian of them all. Yeah, it wasn't a competition, but the rivalry was definitely there between the exponents of humour and he had the advantage that Lloyd pressed into service for his own works, the ability to perform incredible stunts all for the sake of a laugh. When the projectionist here is framed for stealing and pawning his sweetheart's father's watch, things look bleak for him as she hands back his ring in tears and orders him from her house, leaving her at the mercy of the cad (Ward Crane) who has organised Buster's downfall, but his faith in his dreams manages to see him through - literally, as he falls asleep in the booth at work and imagines himself the great detective he always wanted to be.
Before the dream begins, Sherlock Jr has been excellent, but once Keaton let his ideas soar into a stratosphere of creativity, it became brilliant. Initially, when he tries to enter the film playing in the cinema it tries to reject him, editing between various shots that has him nearly run over, topple of a cliff, drowned and so on, but he is persistent and becomes a character, as do the other people we have seen in the reality section. Although the bad guys try to kill him, he is innovative enough to outwit them at every turn, though this is not as easy as it sounds, with exploding pool balls and poisoned drink just two of the perils to avoid. In a production of marvel after marvel, the centrepiece would be the motorcycle ride where Keaton is perched on its handlebars, unaware that the rider who gave him a lift has fallen off. In quickly escalating lunacy, he unwittingly finds himself in insanely dangerous, intricate stunts, made all the more unbelievable when you know there was very little trick photography involved. Naturally, when he does wake up, there is a happy ending, tempered with the knowledge we will never be as adept as we would like to be in our dreams. A joy.
[Sherlock Jr has been released by Eureka in a box set trilogy with The General and Steamboat Bill, Jr, three of the greatest silent comedies ever created. They are all restored to impressive clarity, and have a wealth of featurettes, introductions, a commentary and a booklet as extras. The perfect introduction to an enduring genius.]