My great affection for the Buster Keaton classic Sherlock Jr. was the reason I didn’t get hired as the Detroit Free Press film critic back in the 80s. At least I presume it was, because when as part of the application process I foolishly named it as my favorite film of all time, I could almost hear the hiring panel squirming: “Too esoteric. Too far from the mainstream.” Too wacky.
Sherlock Jr., playing May 15 at the Michigan Theatre as part of its “Family Friendly Film Series,” is indeed wacky–maybe too wacky for some. It’s the Keaton movie in which he plays a film projectionist who falls asleep on the job and dreams he has walked into the movie he’s showing, taking on the protagonist’s role of a famous detective. Woody Allen basically stole the idea sixty years later in The Purple Rose of Cairo, though reversing the fantasy, with Jeff Daniels walking off the screen and into Mia Farrow’s life. Allen’s not the only director to crib from Keaton, a master of comic inventiveness.
Sherlock Jr. is not the Keaton movie in which he is chased down a mountain by an avalanche of boulders (that’s Seven Chances), or the one in which he escapes pursuers by jumping out a window and through a clothesline full of women’s garments and emerges disguised as a female (that’s Neighbor) or the one in which the wall of a house falls down on him but he survives by standing precisely where the window is (that’s Steamboat Bill Jr.). It’s possible to justify several films as Keaton’s best (including The General, in which there’s a classic extended chase with Keaton perched on a locomotive). In all of them, he does his own stunts, aided only by rudimentary (if any) special effects. There was virtually nothing the acrobatic, anarchic Keaton wouldn’t attempt.
I like Sherlock Jr. best because of the clever way in which it satirizes detective movies of the era by employing Keaton’s phony detective as the “real” thing in the film he’s snuck into. It’s every movie buff’s dream, after all, to take over the lead role in this exercise in suspended disbelief we call cinema. The entire movie is basically an elaborate pun on the multiple meanings of the word projecting. Keaton was always stretching the boundaries of literalism to absurdist ends, like brandishing an actual swordfish to fight a swordfish.
The greatest silent film comedian? Most votes might go to Charlie Chaplin, and a few to Harold Lloyd, but if you see Sherlock Jr. at the Michigan the way it should be seen–on the big screen with live organ accompaniment–you might be surprised at how the poker-faced Keaton embodies a bracing bravado. Today the sometimes cloying sentiment of Chaplin might, by contrast, be called “emo,” but Keaton–boldly and unapologetically–really rocks.