Many of you may not know this as my entertainment choices have mostly lay elsewhere during the past year or so that I've been writing this blog, but I LOVE old movies. Not crappy 80s movies or trippy 70s movies, but mainly golden era 1940s-1950s movies, with a little crossover into the early 60s or late 30s. Too far into the 60s and things get too "groovy" while too early in the 30s and the production values are horrific, so I generally avoid these. One major exception to these general rules though is anything by Buster Keaton.
I hope I don't have to school anyone on the screen icon Buster Keaton, but just in case here's the basics about him: Buster Keaton was a film actor ala Charlie Chaplin, full of slapstick physical comedy in silent movies (although he did appear in some talkies later in his career, notably Sunset Boulevard and In the Good Old Summertime). Although he didn't have the typical "leading man" qualities of being stunningly handsome and dashing, Keaton always landed a starring role, often in film endeavors in which he also wrote and/or directed. While it's inevitable that he will be compared to Charlie Chaplin (just as I did above), when it comes to physical comedy, Buster Keaton has my vote as the absolute best, bar none. (When we look at their later films outside the silent era, however, Chaplin's dark humor absolutely steals the show for me. Seriously. Go watch Limelight, Monsieur Verdoux, and/or The Great Dictator and then tell me Chaplin wasn't a genius.) What astounds me about Keaton's physical comedy isn't just how purely good it is, but the risks he took to get a laugh. Potential - and actual - injury to himself didn't stop Keaton from any gag that would entertain. And did I mention just how good his comedy is? I'm not usually a fan of the slapstick - I generally find it puerile and often crass. And, some comedic actors will beat a dead horse, with a particular running gag continuing on for so long that it ceases to be funny. But Keaton had perfect timing and acts of physicality that could not help but produce a laugh. His The Cameraman is one of the funniest films I have ever seen, and the public pool scene is perhaps the most hilarious example of physical comedy out there, although Keaton and a monkey filming a shootout in Chinatown together in that same movie is a close contender. And while the physical comedy and slapstick routines are the hallmarks of any Buster Keaton movie from the 1920s, his films don't forget about storytelling and provide a sustainable and interesting storyline (usually a romantic plot), which is no small feat for a silent movie.
What I'm trying to say with that very long introduction is that today I had the pleasure of watching a new-to-me Buster Keaton movie called Sherlock Jr. Like many a Buster Keaton film, it stars him as a down-on-his-luck, sort of clueless but incredibly kind man who is head over heels in love with a pretty young woman who another more polished man tries to woo. In Sherlock Jr., Keaton's nameless protagonist wants to become a detective but currently works as a projectionist in a movie theater. When he falls asleep there one day while a movie plays in the background, he dreams himself into the movie. The movie-within-the-movie is called Hearts and Pearls and involves a woman's pearl necklace being stolen by a pair of thieves, one of whom is pretending to court her. Keaton's character arrives on the scene as famed criminologist Sherlock Jr. whose trusty sidekick is a fellow named Gillette. Sherlock Jr. and Gillette elude the criminals' attacks and manage to save the pearls and the girl by the end of the film-within-the-film. Of course, this being a Buster Keaton movie, all of this happens with numerous ridiculous - but funny - gags along the way, including a cross-dressing Keaton, a driver-less motorcycle, and a booby-trapped house.
Meanwhile, in the real world, Keaton's character is barely scrapping together enough money to present gifts for his girlfriend and is eventually accused of a theft he didn't commit. The initial evidence is against him, but his intrepid girlfriend figuratively takes a page out of his detective's handbook and tracks down additional evidence to clear his name. And, of course, this second plot includes some running jokes involving a sticky newspaper, a slippery banana peel, and one lost dollar that several people try to claim, to name a few.
All in all, Sherlock Jr. has so many different jokes and comedic situations that it's bound to hit the mark with the audience at least some of the time. There were a few gags, like the sticky newspaper, that fell a little flat for me, but mostly I was thoroughly entertained by this movie. It didn't reach The Cameraman heights of ridiculously hysterical, laugh-out-loud funny, but it was more than capable of producing plenty of laughs.
The movie is also notable for its use of special effects. As per usual with Buster Keaton, many of the gags ran the risk of physical injury and apparently Keaton actually broke his neck in the production of this film during one of his physical comedy routines. Some other scenes also left me feeling a bit squirmy, worried about the actor's safety. (However, the fact that this actor is long dead and that I knew he survived the silent film era allowed me to enjoy the physical comedy rather than be made too uncomfortable.) But even more notable to me were the scenes involving Keaton's movie-within-the-movie. This sequence starts off with us seeing Keaton's character asleep in the projectionist's booth and then we watch his dream self rise up out of his body, put on his hat, and head out the door. Did I mention this movie came out in 1924?! I had no idea the kind of technology needed for such a scene was available. (C'mon, they couldn't figure out how to add sound to movies yet.) After this amazing feat, we watch his character travel down the movie theater aisle and up on to the stage before walking into the screen itself. Again, this in in 1924. Keaton, who directed this movie as well as starred in it, was apparently not only a comedic genius but also incredibly talented at making movie magic.
I'm not sure if I've emphasized enough yet that this movie was made in 1924. ;) While the humor certainly transcends the time period, there were so many elements that made this movie feel almost stereotypically old-timey. The movie-within-the-movie's female lead has flapper fashion chic, the men's everyday wear includes cravats and spats, steam engine locomotives seem almost ubiquitous in the background, and Tin Lizzies rattle by on the streets. At one point there's even gangsters standing on the car's sideboards, hanging on to the "speeding" car while trying to shoot down the protagonist ahead of them, in what feels like a classic old-fashioned movie scene.
All in all, Sherlock Jr. is a great movie for good clean humor, a sweet romantic story, old-timey fun, and mind-boggling special effects given the time period. And all this is just under 45 minutes. Did I mention that Buster Keaton was a genius?