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Sherlock, Jr.

December 21, 2010

23. Sherlock, Jr.
Directed by Buster Keaton
USA, 1924
IMDB | allmovie

Reviewed by Rachel
Umpteenth viewing



A young projectionist and wannabe detective, known only as The Boy, is framed for robbery by a love rival. The Boy’s girlfriend believes that he really has stolen her father’s watch, and she and her family reject him. When The Boy fails to catch the real culprit, he returns to work broken-hearted and falls asleep while a film is being shown.

The Boy then dreams that he steps into the film and becomes Sherlock Jr: the world’s greatest detective, who has been hired to solve the case of the missing pearls. He sees the same people and has a very familiar case — will he do better in his subconscious?

Essential Scene:

As most characters are unnamed, I’m referencing some characters by using the name of the actor portraying them.

With a handsome air of competence and suavity, the crime-crushing criminologist has arrived at the scene of the crime. The ‘villains’ (Ward Crane and Erwin Connelly) have set up various traps for our hero. If Sherlock Jr (Buster Keaton) sits on a chair, an axe will come down on him from the wall. If he accepts the host’s hospitality, he will be poisoned by his drink. But the best trap of all is a bomb in the form of a snooker ball.

He avoids the axe by not sitting down. He drinks the wrong, un-poisoned, drink. So they challenge him to a game of pool. While Sherlock’s back is turned, Connelly switches the number 13 ball. The bomb-ball goes onto the pool table and the safe 13 ball goes into a box, which is near the pool table. But little does Connelly know that Sherlock is watching him in the mirror.








Crane and Connelly run out of the room sharpish as Sherlock‘s shot sends the balls flying in all directions. Every ball moves — apart from number 13. Sherlock plays incredible shot after incredible shot. Connelly looks on in despair as the 13 ball stays completely still, with every shot missing it by millimetres. At one point, the cue ball curves around the 13 ball.

Connelly looks at the next shot Sherlock has to make. This must be it. One ball left. 13 must be pocketed, right? Wrong. Sherlock manages to send the cue ball flying OVER number 13.

Sherlock calls for Crane. He points at the table for Crane to make a shot. Crane aims for a safe ball and runs out the room as fast as a cheetah, as Sherlock’s next shot sends the cue ball leaping around the table.

One ball left again. This is definitely it. Sherlock hits the 13 ball. The ball is pocketed. He walks away. What? Did the bomb not work?

Connelly checks the box containing the safe 13 ball. The box is empty. The balls were switched. If the safe 13 ball was just played, where’s the bomb?

Sherlock leaves the house. He takes the bomb-ball out of his pocket and examines it. And nearly drops it. Well, he’s only human…


Buster Keaton had a rule that his comedy had to be plausible. No matter how unlikely, the gag had to be able to happen in real life. He stopped doing what he called “impossible gags” when he started to do feature films, because he thought the audience wanted to believe what they were seeing. The only time he broke this self-imposed rule was when he created a dream sequence. As much as I love his other films, I wish he broke this rule more often. Keaton’s knowledge of vaudeville tricks and camera technology screamed for more films like this.

The surrealistic, other-worldly air of Sherlock Jr makes it so magical. The ability to step into a film.  Mirrors that aren’t really there. A grown man jumping into a briefcase. The action sequences and stunts that make Sherlock look like a prototype for James Bond.

You really cannot predict what will happen next.

And yet, the more realistic elements add to it perfectly. The sexual tension between The Boy and his girlfriend as they struggle to just hold hands and end up surprising themselves at their tenacity towards that simple action. The Boy’s effort to come up with just three dollars to buy The Girl some chocolates, and having to settle for a cheaper box.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a perfect film. I haven’t known it for long — I only discovered it just over a year ago. I watched open mouthed without realising I was that amazed until I started to get face-ache. I didn’t think silent film could be like this. I was a fool; Sherlock Jr couldn’t be anything but silent. It is proof that silent film truly is an art form.

Reviewed by Ally
Umpteenth viewing

Essential Scene:

The Boy (Buster Keaton), dejected after being falsely accused of theft and rejected by The Girl (Kathryn McGuire), returns to his job at the cinema. He falls asleep in the projection room and begins to dream.

His ghostly dream-self leaves his sleeping body and observes the film being projected, only to see the characters replaced by their real life equivalents. Upon seeing his love rival (Ward Crane) attempting to seduce The Girl on-screen, The Boy takes action and, in a magical moment, steps into the film he has been viewing.

However, he becomes victim to a hyperactive editor. The scenery changes constantly around him. The Boy tries to walk down the stairs, but finds himself stepping off a stool instead. He goes to sit on the stool, only to be placed in the middle of the street with nothing to sit on. He tries to walk down the street, but suddenly he’s walking towards the edge of a cliff. He must contend with jungles, deserts, snowscapes and tempestuous seas before he can finally join the film as Sherlock Jr.

Echoes of this scene can be spotted in works as varied as Duck Amuck and The Purple Rose of Cairo.


Sherlock Jr is a surreal epic in under 45 minutes. Buster Keaton manages to cram so much into just five reels, it boggles the mind. Not a second is wasted, from small-scale gags involving lost dollar bills or poisoned drinks, to a nailbiting sequence in which Keaton unwittingly rides the handlebars of an unmanned motorcycle. The cycle miraculously dodges perilous obstacles, clearing an oncoming train and driving along a collapsing bridge before he finally realises the driver has fallen off. These stunts were genuinely performed by Keaton. He only once used a stunt double (for a pole vaulting trick in College), and he would frequently even stand in for the other actors. Throughout his career, he risked his life countless times for the sake of a laugh. Years after filming Sherlock Jr, he would discover that one stunt fractured his neck – that very take is in the finished film.

Keaton had a rule that all his gags must be physically possible, no matter how spectacular. The gimmick of a dream sequence allows him for once to break that rule, which gives Sherlock Jr a magical, ethereal quality. The Boy dreams himself into another film, allowing him to live vicariously through cinema. He performs stunning feats of physical and mental dexterity, defeats the villains and, of course, gets the girl.

The potentially hyperactive film is held together by Keaton’s conviction. His quiet, deadpan screen persona portrays more emotion than all the mugging and cloying sentimentality in the world. He never asks for the sympathy of the audience, and that is precisely how he earns it. The action sequences are infused with genuine energy – although the material is funny, he doesn’t simply “play it for laughs.” When he runs from his pursuers, it’s not a joke; it’s a thrilling chase that just happens to be funny too. This makes Keaton’s films more accessible to modern audiences too, bypassing the overstated performances and boistrous violence that marks a lot of silent comedy.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim Lawrence permalink
    December 22, 2010 4:19 pm

    I *must* see this film. Great review.

  2. January 5, 2011 6:38 pm

    Please please please please tell me that you’ve seen “Seven Chances”. Please.

    Keaton is on a short list (with Ingmar Bergman and nobody else) of filmmaking icons who move me in the way that he moves me. And by “moves me”, I mean “makes me laugh at all of his movies until my sides hurt, no matter how many times I’ve seen them”.

    • Rachel permalink
      January 5, 2011 7:00 pm

      Oh, absolutely! (I’m speaking for myself here, but I’m pretty sure Ally has seen “Seven Chances” too)
      I’ve seen, and loved, all of Keaton’s two-reelers and feature films.
      He made me see the magic of silent film and physical comedy; and, quite frankly, made me laugh my arse off!

      We’ll be reviewing “Seven Chances” at some point, as it’s number 25 on The List.

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