by Allan Fish
(USA 1924 45m) DVD1/2
How to be a detective
p Joseph M.Schenck d/ed Buster Keaton w Clyde Bruckman, Jean Havez, Joseph Mitchell ph Elgin Lessley, Byron Houck
Buster Keaton (Sherlock Jr), Kathryn McGuire (girl), Ward Crane (rival), Joseph Keaton,
Of the three great silent comedians – along with Chaplin and Lloyd – Keaton is often described as the best, the most ingenious and certainly, in the timing of his gags, one cannot argue that point. Buster’s timing of physical gags often quite beggars belief (remember the gag with the side of the house in Steamboat Bill Jnr?) and made him beloved of an entire generation. A master of both the comedy short and the feature (like Chaplin before him), three other films in the list, Cops, Our Hospitality and The General, will detail his genius there. Sherlock Junior, on the other hand, though technically a feature in that it is over forty minutes in length, often gets overlooked in best film lists for falling, in length terms at least, between the devil and the deep blue sea. However, though The General is indeed his masterpiece, Buster the gag man was at his peak here.
The story concerns a small town projectionist at a local fleapit who is in love with a young girl. He unfortunately has a rival for her affections, in the form of a ne’er-do-well thief who contrives to get Buster accused of stealing her father’s watch. Returning to his job dejected, he imagines himself in the films he’s projecting, solving crimes and winning the girl at all costs. When he wakes up, his girl comes to him and tells him the family have realised their error.
There are gag scenes here that cannot be described, only seen. Such as when Buster is sweeping out the auditorium and finds a dollar bill which gives him the three he needs to get a special box of chocolates for his girl. However, a woman comes back looking for her lost money, which he hands over. She is followed by an older woman looking for the same and Buster gives her one of his own dollars, leaving him just one. Then a fearsome looking man comes along and starts rummaging and, being afraid of him, Buster hands him his last remaining dollar. The man refuses it, returns to the rubbish pile, pulls out a black wallet and starts stroking and counting the massive wad inside and walks off leaving Buster amazed. Then there’s the hilarious sequence of Buster avoiding all number of hazards left by a pair of crooks, including playing pool in spite of the unlucky 13 ball being replaced by one with a bomb inside it. But he conspires to clear the table in all manner of geometrically amazing shots beyond the skill of an Eddie Felson without touching the 13 ball at all. Finally, he just does a double on the ball, pots it and the crooks realise he’d put back the real 13 ball. Later on we have a classic chase scene where Buster, tailing crooks in his own incompetent conspicuous way, hops on the front of a motorcycle cop’s handlebars and chases after them, only for the cop to fall off going through a watery patch and Buster riding the bike from the handlebars. In the ensuing journey, he avoids an exploding log, an unfinished bridge, an Irish stag party, a moving train and all number of other hazards before rescuing the girl and driving off, only for his car to stick in the mud and the top chassis half to fly into the river. Undeterred, Buster rolls up the hood and uses it as a sail.
Yet it’s not just in the succession of magisterial gags that Buster is so adept as even the titles have their humour, with Buster wandering out after the pool game with a “his mind had solved everything about the mystery except the identity of the thieves and recovering the pearls” and, even better, the entrance of the villain into proceedings, “Buster’s rival for the girl – something of a cad.” Through all this, Buster remains a supreme innocent, in life, love and everything else. Even at the end, as his girl comes to him, he has to look to the screen to follow the lovers’ instructions on how to kiss his girl, until a final cut to the two with babies leaves him scratching his head. In the end, it’s this innocence we love him for and cherish looking back from the distance of eighty years. He may have been old Stoneface, but we’re anything but watching his antics.