For those needing proof that Buster Keaton had genius running through his veins, that he wasn’t just a comedian “in slapshoes and flat hat”, go watch Sherlock Jr.(1924). Most of his 1920s films are exquisite and worthy of praise. Orson Welles considered The General to be the greatest Civil War movie ever made (and Buster himself as one of the most beautiful people to ever be photographed). For me, Sherlock Jr. eclipses his other masterpieces (yes, even The General), due to its perfect harmony of playfulness, tragedy, comedy, absurd and a form of self-mocking misery that, unlike Chaplin’s, makes no excuses and asks for no lenience.
As exquisitely technical and historically accurate as The General is, as humorously sweet and cleverly directed Our Hospitality is, I find Sherlock Jr to be Buster Keaton’s most accomplished work. We are accustomed to his work ethic, where nothing is left to chance, where the gags are so elaborate and hilarious that you find yourself half laughing half gasping in awe. We know all that. His independent work of the 1920s was exquisite. Yes, even College and Spite Marriage.
What separates Buster Keaton for me from the likes of Chaplin and Lloyd transcends mere slapstick. It is Bunuel-like surrealism, a multi-layered vision and an understanding of the cinematic medium light years ahead of his peers through which Keaton was able to bend time, space and matter. Keaton started flexing his whimsical muscles with The Playhouse, during which he was unable to perform his usual gravity-defying stunts due to an ankle injury. He perfected his dream-within-a-dream, rule-reshuffling universe with Sherlock Jr., a masterpiece which served as inspiration for the likes of Woody Allen and John McTiernan, to name a few.
With Sherlock Jr. he took the classic detective story, cut it into little pieces, jumbled them all up then pasted it all together. The result is 44 minutes of cinematic perfection. Scenes of gorgeous romantic yet electrifying sensibility – check! Heartbreaking scenes caused by miscommunication and injustice – check! Action packed scenes – checked! Absurd scenes in which we doubt not only what we are seeing but also the reality of our own lives, Matrix-style – check! check!
The only way to appreciate the eccentricity of such a film like Sherlock Jr is to watch it with the Club Foot Orchestra score. Controversial as it may be, I really loved the Club Foot Orchestra score for Sherlock Jr. Eerie yet playful, zany yet sensual, minimalist yet sophisticated, just like the man, just like the man’s work. Music is especially important for a silent film and I feel that the Club Foot Orchestra managed to capture the energy, innovation of the film as well as romantic quirkiness of Buster’s character. Special mentions of the pool table scene and the chase sequences. The music for the pool table scene, which was meticulously arranged, perfectly illustrates the difficulty with which the actual scene was shot (it took Buster a week to get all the perfect pool shots – there was no fakery involved). The music for the chase sequences are a blend of Mr. Bean and James Bond, which, I believe, perfectly encapsulate our hero’s nature: suave yet childish, sexy yet naïve, boyish and manly all at the same time. Buster would have appreciated the experimental nature of this original score, given that he worked for originality and innovation all his life.