Sunday, April 21, 2024

The 100th Anniversary of Sherlock Jr.

Sherlock Jr. (1924) remains one of Buster Keaton's most famous movies. It also remains one of the most famous silent movies of all time. Its special effects were revolutionary for the time, and still hold up today. Indeed, the effects in Sherlock Jr. look better than much of the CGI used today. It was 100 years ago on this date that Sherlock Jr. was released.

Sherlock Jr. centres on a poor, young projectionist at a small town theatre who is in love with the daughter of a wealthy man (Kathryn MacGuire). Unfortunately, he has a rival in the form of the Local Sheik (Ward Crane), who steals and pawns the girl's father's pocket watch, and then frames the projectionist for it. While running a film at the theatre, the projectionist falls asleep and dreams that he enters the movie being shown. Titled Hearts and Pearls, the movie is about the theft of a string of pearls. The Projectionist then dreams that he is a great detective, Sherlock Jr., who is called to find the missing pearls.

Buster Keaton would later state that the idea of his character walking into the screen of a movie being shown at a theatre was "the reason for making the whole picture ... Just that one situation." The movie was then built around that idea. The movie was originally titled The Misfit. Marion Harlan was originally cast as The Girl, but she fell ill. She was then replaced by Kathryn McGuire, who had appeared in such films as The Silent Call (1921), Playing with Fire (1921), and The Sheik of Araby (1923). The Girl's Father was played by none other than Buster Keaton's father, Joe Keaton, who had already appeared in several of his son's films, including "The Electric House" (1922) and Our Hospitality (1923). Ward Crane, who played The Local Sheik and the villain of Sherlock Jr., had appeared in such movies as French Heels (1922) and Destiny's Isle (1922). Erwin Connelly, who played The Hired Man (and in the movie within a movie, Hearts and Pearls, the butler), had already appeared with Buster Keaton in the movie Our Hospitality (1923).

Although often credited to Buster Keaton, there is some question as to who directed Sherlock Jr. In 1923 Camera! magazine stated that Buster Keaton was the film's sole director. The only directorial credit in the film itself belongs to Buster Keaton. Despite this, in Buster Keaton's autobiography he states that he wanted to help his old friend and co-star Roscoe Arbuckle, who was still reeling from the 1921 scandal involving the death of actress Virginia Rappe, and so he hired him to co-direct Sherlock Jr. As it turned out, Mr. Arbuckle's disposition had changed since the scandal. He was bad-tempered and even abusive towards the actors. Even having worked with Roscoe Arbuckle on several films, Buster Keaton found him difficult to work with. According to Buster Keaton, he was reluctant to let Roscoe Arbuckle go, but he felt he had to. He said that his business manager, Lou Anger, proposed that Mr. Keaton ask Marion Davies hire him for her next film, The Red Mill. The problem with this is that The Red Mill would not even start production until well after Sherlock Jr. was being made.

While there are those who maintain that Roscoe Arbuckle directed all of Sherlock Jr., Kevin Brownlow and David Gill came to the conclusion that Mr. Arbuckle started Sherlock Jr., but did not finish it, as he was directing Al. St. John films at the time. This seems to be a likely explanation, particularly given Sherlock Jr. is credited to Buster Keaton and not Roscoe Arbuckle under a pseudonym (following the scandal, he used the pseudonym William Goodrich to direct movies).

Of course, Sherlock Jr. remains well-known for its special effects and stunts. Among the most remarkable effects in the film is that of Buster Keaton's character walking into a screen as a movie is playing. What makes the sequence even more remarkable is that the scenery often changes around Mr. Keaton. The effect was accomplished by Elgin Lessley, who had already worked with Buster Keaton on several films, including "Cops" (1922), "The Electric House" (1922), Three Ages (1923), and Our Hospitality (1923), among others. In order to achieve the effect of Buster Keaton entering the movie screen, surveyor's equipment was used so that Elgin Lessley could keep exact measurements for Buster Keaton's distance from the camera for each and every shot. Here I have to digress to point out that Elgin Lessley was born in Higbee, Missouri, making him a Randolph Countian like myself.

Elgin Lessley was not the only cameraman on Sherlock Jr., as Byron Houck also worked on the movie. Byron Houck had been a baseball player, having played with the Philadelphia, Athletics, the Brooklyn Tip-Tops, the St. Louis Browns, and the Vernon Tigers. Roscoe Arbuckle bought the Tigers and this was how Byron Houck entered the film industry. Sherlock Jr. would be his first film, He would later shoot Buster Keaton's movies The Navigator (1924),  Seven Chances (1925), and The General (1926).

While Elgin Lessley was responsible for many of the effects in Sherlock Jr., Buster Keaton was responsible for one of the most amazing effects in the movie. During a chase, Sherlock Jr. jumps into a small suitcase and disappears. According to Buster Keaton, this was an old trick his father, Joe Keaton, had developed in vaudeville. In 1957 Mr. Keaton performed the stunt on The Ed Sullivan Show. Buster Keaton never revealed how he did the trick.

In addition to the special effects, Sherlock Jr. is also known for the many stunts in the film. What is more, as usual, Buster Keaton performed his own stunts. One of the most famous stunts resulted in an injury to Buster Keaton. In one scene Mr. Keaton is running atop a moving a train and then grabs the drop-spout of a railroad water tower. The water from the spout poured down on Buster Keaton with more force than expected, and when he was slammed to the ground his neck hit a steel rail. Buster Keaton was in intense pain and had to stop shooting later in the day. He would have headaches for weeks afterwards. Regardless, he continued working. It would not be until 1935 that Buster Keaton realized he had broken his neck in that scene, after a doctor uncovered a callus that had grown over a fracture through an X-ray. This wasn't the only accident Buster Keaton had while making Sherlock Jr. During a scene in which he was on a motorcycle, the motorcycle skidded and Buster Keaton was thrown into a car.

Buster Keaton previewed what was still titled The Misfit in Long Beach, California. Noticing there were few laughs, Mr. Keaton then re-edited the movie. A second preview proved even more disheartening, and so he edited it down to five reels. It was after the previews that the movie was renamed Sherlock Jr. It was released on April 21 1924. The movie did respectably well, but it made less money that the first film he had directed, Three Ages (1923). It also received mixed reviews upon its release. While The New York Times described it as  "one of the best screen tricks ever incorporated in a comedy," Variety claimed it lacked any "ingenuity and originality."

Since then many critics and movie buffs have disagreed with Variety and count Sherlock Jr. as a classic. In 2000 the American Film Institute ranked it as no. 62 on their list of "AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs." Also in 2000, Time magazine included it in their list of the All-Time 100 Movies. As might be expected, in 1991 it was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being "...culturally, historically or aesthetically significant films."

There is little wonder that Sherlock Jr.'s reputation would grow over the years. While some films do not age particularly well, Sherlock Jr. still feels modern even at 100 years of age. It was one of the first films to depict a movie within a movie, with Buster Keaton's character entering the fictional movie Hearts and Pearls. The movie even features an early pop culture reference. Sherlock Jr.'s assistant in Hearts and Pearls is named "Gillette." This is a reference to William Gillette, an actor known for playing Sherlock Holmes several times on stage and in the 1916 film Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock Jr. also moves at a good clip, with several sight gags, stunts, and outright slapstick so that things never slow down. Sherlock Jr. remains one of the greatest films ever made by Buster Keaton, a director who made many great films.

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