Sons of the Silent Age: The cinematic ingenuity of Sherlock, Jr.

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SONS of the Silent Age returns with a look at one of the finest comedies of all time: Sherlock, Jr..

Buster Keaton was a stone-faced man made of elastic. He was also, quite probably, clinically insane. Born under the luckiest celestial body in the land, Joseph Keaton, son of Joe and Myra, received his famous stage name (from, as legend has it, Harry Houdini) when he tumbled down a stairwell at the age of six months old and emerged unscathed. From there, he spent the vast majority of his youth performing with his parents as part of their vaudeville act, The Three Keatons, much of which involved young Buster being hurled through windows and cartwheeling into the orchestra pit.

During this time, Keaton realised that, when he returned from his tumbles smiling and waving, the audience reaction would be minuscule compared to when he emerged without expression. Hence the nickname he would later receive: “The Great Stone Face”. From vaudeville, he would move to Hollywood, there to ignite a storied career that would have him go down as, in the words of Orson Welles, “The greatest of all the clowns in the history of cinema.”

That silent clown made Sherlock, Jr.. Even at a distance of 92 years, Sherlock, Jr. puts modern, scripted comedies to shame with the inventiveness of his scenarios and the creativity of his jokes. His deadpan persona, his breathtaking stunts and his auteurial stamp have been imitated by many, but never bettered. He also moved beyond his contemporaries in his use of editing, visual storytelling and sheer will to innovate. Sherlock, Jr. represents that will more than any of his work.

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It’s a vibrant, joyous tribute to the medium of cinema itself. It’s cinema about cinema, made by a man who loved cinema. In its hilarious self-awareness and willingness to embrace the inherent wonder and absurdity that only giant people on giant screens can provide, the film is both surreal and intimate. Years ahead of its time and smack in the middle of cinema’s greatest hot streak, Sherlock, Jr. captured Keaton at his most innovative, maverick and risk-taking best. It’s also one of his shortest features (44 and a half minutes), hacked down from a longer cut following unfavourable test screenings. The result is a picture with a rollicking pace, a simple romantic narrative and a satisfying brevity that brims with soul.

There’s a surprisingly obvious reason that good silent comedy ages far better than talky comedy: the lack of dialogue. Conversation, by its very nature, connotes the context of its time, and Keaton’s comedy, by and large, relies far less on intertitles than the work of his peers. There’s an early scene, where his hapless projectionist scrounges four dollars out of strewn rubbish. A woman walks by and asks him if he’s seen a dollar. Unblinking, he asks, “Describe it.” That’s the set-up – one intertitle. When two other bystanders walk up to him, the ensuing action is purely physical; no intertitles to dictate to us what’s going on, only Keaton’s face as he wipes his face with a handkerchief in silent resignation.

Keaton was a staunch believer in visual storytelling. “Most average pictures would use 240 title cards,” he would say in an interview, “The most I ever used was 56.” As a result of Keaton’s distate for cards, they are only used when absolutely necessary to further the plot. When they aren’t necessary, plot progression is achieved through tangible action. The perspective of the audience, then, as well as their understanding of the narrative and the comedy therein, is dictated by the frame in which the characters reside.

The antagonism between “The Projectionist” Keaton and “The Sheik” Ward Crane, as love rivals to “The Girl” Kathryn McGuire, is established entirely, again, through physical gesture, culminating in a banana peel gag and Keaton haphazardly tailing Crane so close they’re almost touching. Other relationships between characters are conveyed almost entirely through body language and inference, like the Projectionist’s awkward stance around “The Girl’s Father” (and Buster’s own father), Joe Keaton.

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The flat, frame-exclusive perspective also serves to pelt the audience with legions of sight-gags. For the vast majority of these, our eyes are automatically trained on Keaton himself before another element lopes into frame and catches us, Keaton and audience both, off-guard. When he tails The Sheikh, for instance, he waits for a moment beside a freight train carriage, before another chugs onscreen and very nearly collides with him.

Crucially, we only realise this is going to happen a second before Keaton does. That short moment of dramatic irony defines what makes the film so funny: it’s the combination of these unexpected visual elements and Keaton’s slightly baffled, not-quite surprised expression – his “Great Stone Face” – that make us laugh. But this example, simple and wonderfully effective as it is, can’t compare to the madcap inventiveness that Keaton employs in the latter half of the picture.

Falling asleep during a screening, the Projectionist dreams that the characters in the film become The Girl and The Sheik. Here, the lines between the reality within the film and the artifice of the film itself blur. We are now within, in one of its earliest incarnations in movie history, a film within a film. Keaton seizes the opportunity and runs with it. His Projectionist wreaks havoc with the boundaries of reality, running into the frame to prevent a lovers’ tryst in a boudoir, only for the scene to change to an exterior of the very same house, then to a garden, then to a busy main street.

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It’s an uproarious and brilliantly-realised segment that still seems vivid and fresh today, and the camera captures it all at the same, flat angle, simultaneously allowing us to see everything that’s going on and preparing us for the next punchline. Our expectations are toyed with constantly, precisely because we know something is coming and we’re guessing at what it might be. It was also staggeringly technically complex for the time, relying on reverse camera feed, blacked out theatrical sets and heavy use of double exposure. It’s impressive even today, in the advent of far more sophisticated technology.

When the Projectionist “becomes” Sherlock, Jr., the imagined genius of the detective book he has been reading throughout, reality and illusion may as well be smudges. The uncertain metaphysics of the world allow Keaton to reincorporate the “impossible gags” he liberally used in his older shorts. Keaton had adopted more naturalistic visual jokes for his features (ones that made sense in a world where physics made sense), but here, in the dreamscape film-within-a-film, those laws mean nothing.

He unlocks a safe door, only to walk out onto a busy street. He examines himself in a mirror, only to walk straight through it, revealing another room. The last ten minutes or so is a thrilling chase where spatial understanding is rendered moot, and standard logic is thrown out the window. (Literally so; when he defenestrates himself, he hurtles through a case that conceals a dress, emerging clothed in that very dress.)

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At one point, Keaton leaps through an accomplice’s stomach to elude his pursuers. This, obviously, is completely absurd (and I still don’t know how he did it), but it alerts the audience, if they weren’t already aware, to the breaking of the world’s established rules. Because it’s a dreamscape, he can get away with this. This is the stuff of Looney Tunes and Tom & Jerry, decades before they would even exist.

The breakdown of these rules also enables him to dabble in some of the most awe-inspiring stunts committed to celluloid, the stuff he built his legend on. The man rides a motorcycle while sitting on the handlebars, for god’s sake. He drives it over bridges, flatbed trucks, through a tug of war and into a log to catapult himself through a cabin wall and dropkick a man. Then he uses the frame of a car as a boat. It is magical, surreal, and endlessly brilliant to watch.

This is where his use of natural and unobtrusive camera angles works wonders. Since we can see all the action unfold, there’s so much more to laugh at. Keaton, as a director, only cuts away from a scene if the joke is played out or if another element needs to be established. Simple, geometric shapes draw our attention, like the projector square through which the Projectionist, awakened, The Girl attesting his innocence, gets tips on how to be romantic from the film being screened.

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The punchline builds on the repetition, as he looks back to the film for more hints, and the contrast between the idealisation of the film-within-a-film and the Projectionist’s clumsy imitation of it is the film’s self-awareness at its most rewarding. It’s rewarding because Buster Keaton understood his audience. His stunts, famously performed by himself and often at great personal risk, were done to endear his character -and, consequently, himself – to the audience.

He did this in order to paint a picture of a dynamic, quick-witted underdog fighting for his life and his living against overwhelming odds, whether it be against a human enemy or natural obstacle. We believe in the construction; this is, after all, a man who fractured (some say altogether broke) his neck beneath gallons of water pouring from a spout and simply carried on as if nothing happened. (He discovered the injury around a decade later.)

Whenever he comes close to attaining superiority over us – as he briefly does with the Sherlock, Jr. persona he adopts – it is always undercut by a pratfall or another gag. Though he does outwit his would-be assassins, a title card humorously states, “He had completely solved the mystery – with the exception of locating the pearls and finding the thief.”

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His diminutive stature (around 5’4, if Google is to be believed) automatically placed him in the underdog position, and many of his shorts pitted him against larger men like Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and strongman Joe Roberts. Sherlock, Jr. is no different, using the overbearing height and monetary standing of the antagonists to heighten (no pun intended) the stakes against him.

Once again, this is simple, effective, visual storytelling within a visual medium. Keaton understood that better than any of his silent contemporaries, comedic or otherwise. Perhaps that’s why this surreal, absurdist, visually-driven masterpiece was one of Keaton’s least successful at the time. Its legend has only grown since, but it may not be too surprising that this self-aware, illusion-shattering film was a comparative failure in a time when film-making itself was still a nascent art form. How can we, one might argue, feel nostalgia for something that hasn’t been around for very long? The answer is simple: Love for the art.

As a result of that love, almost a century later, we cheer and laugh for him precisely because, much like Sherlock, Jr.‘s own reputation, he overcomes the odds stacked against him. And he bears it all with the face; that downcast, melancholic, set-in-stone face that seldom lifts but never sags. It’s a face that speaks to so much of human nature, and it’s used to make us laugh. That still, impassive look could be heartbreaking and hilarious, and it may well have doomed him to failure in an age where dialogue ruled.

The work of his greatest contemporaries, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, were both defined by their abiding humanity. Keaton, for my money, with his silly porkpie hat and his elastic body, was the most deeply human of them all. He never even had to smile to prove it.

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