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Film / Sherlock, Jr.

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Buster reads the manual and tries out a disguise.

"While employed as a moving picture operator in a small town theater he was also studying to be a detective."

This 1924 Buster Keaton film is an oddity — longer than the average comedy short but not long enough to be a feature film, it's an Affectionate Parody of the 1922 John Barrymore film Sherlock Holmes, with Buster playing a movie projectionist and would-be sleuth. Framed for theft by a romantic rival and unable to prove his innocence, the protagonist goes back to the movie theater where he works, dozes off next to the projector, and dreams that he is Sherlock, Jr., the World's Greatest Detective.

Today, the movie is best remembered for the sequence in which the projectionist's ghostly dream avatar walks into the movie screen, where a series of jump cuts places him in embarrassing and dangerous situations. These scenes may have inspired or influenced Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo (in which a character from a Depression-era romantic comedy steps off the screen into the real world), the Arnold Schwarzenegger film Last Action Hero (in which a young boy enters an action movie and brings the hero into reality), and the Merrie Melodies short "Duck Amuck" (in which Daffy Duck is tormented by an animator).

The dream concept gave Keaton leeway to push the boundaries of his filmmaking. He takes the opportunity to recreate some classic vaudeville stunts, including one startling moment when he appears to jump through another actor's torso. The high-society setting of the dream also gave him an excuse to use more luxurious sets and costumes than was usual in his films.

This film is available on YouTube.

Sherlock Jr. provides examples of:

  • Added Alliterative Appeal: A title card describes Sherlock Jr. as a "crime-crushing criminologist."
  • Affectionate Parody: Buster's dapper detective is based on John Barrymore's portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in his eponymous 1922 film.
  • All Just a Dream: Most of the second half of the film is Buster's dream of being a famous detective.
  • Babies Ever After: The end of Hearts and Pearls, the film within the film.
  • Bad Guys Play Pool: And in this case they set up a death trap by switching out the #13 ball with a fake ball that is actually a bomb.
  • Banana Peel: Which causes Keaton to do an enormous pratfall when he tries to play this on someone else.
  • Beyond the Impossible: Sherlock Jr. appears to jump through both his disguised assistant and the wall behind him, and Gillette spins around and walks away immediately afterward. This, like the quick change, is a stunt Keaton learned in vaudeville, but unlike the quick change this gag is not fully explained within the film.
  • Brick Joke: See Chekhov's Gun below.
  • But You Were There, and You, and You: All of the characters in the framing story appear in the dream sequence in analogous roles.
  • The Butler Did It: In Buster's dream, the butler is in on the robbery.
  • Changing Clothes Is a Free Action: The hero performs a quick change on camera by literally jumping through a hoop, but we watch him set it up in advance (though most first-time viewers probably won't realize what they're seeing until the payoff).
  • Chase Scene: A long, elaborate one as Buster and his girl flee the villains' hideout.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The explosive #13 pool ball, which Buster switches out for the real ball, then puts in his pocket and forgets—until the climax of the chase, when he hurls it at the pursuers' car, which blows up.
  • Clear Their Name: While Buster cracks the case in his dream, in real life his girl succeeds in discovering who stole her father's watch.
  • Contrived Coincidence: Keaton's character alters the $1 gift to say $4, which happens to be the exact sum the thief got for pawning the watch.
  • Damsel in Distress: Both played straight and subverted. In the film within a film, the Girl's movie counterpart must be rescued by Sherlock Jr. However, in the real world frame story, it is the Girl who clears Buster's name and essentially saves him while he takes a nap at the movie theater!
  • Dead Foot Leadfoot: Sorta — the hero hops onto the handlebars of a motorcycle. Shortly afterward the driver (still alive) falls off, but the 'cycle keeps going. Keaton rides a speeding motorcycle while perched on the handlebars for this sequence, without realizing that the driver fell off until shortly before the crash.
  • Death Trap: The villains rig a billiards room with an exploding pool ball, a poisoned drink, and a falling ax controlled by a hidden trigger.
  • Double Take: Sherlock Jr. performs an epic take when he realizes he's riding the handlebars of a driverless motorcycle.
  • Dream Sequence: Most of the film.
  • Dynamic Entry: Sherlock Jr. arrives at the shack where the girl is being held captive, flying feet-first through a window.
  • Everything Except Most Things: At the third act, the following intertitle is displayed on the screen:
    By the next day the master mind had completely solved the mystery — with the exception of locating the pearls and finding the thief.
  • Fade to Black: At the end, the hero watches the movie within the movie for tips on how to treat his sweetheart. Imitating the onscreen action, he gives the girl a ring, kisses her ... and is left scratching his head in bewilderment when a fade to black is followed by Babies Ever After.
  • Frameup: The projectionist takes the fall for the local sheik's misdeed.
  • Framing Device: The "waking life" sequences that introduce the characters and scenario of the hero's dream, and to which we return for the film's end.
  • Guile Hero: The titular detective is a master of manipulation and likes to uses his smarts and skills to get the job done.
  • I Have You Now, My Pretty: The unpleasant leer that one of the mooks gives Buster's girl is clearly meant to be this.
  • Improbable Aiming Skills: The various trick shots that Buster takes to sink all the other pool balls without ever hitting #13, climaxing in bending another ball around #13 and then causing the cue ball to skip over #13 completely. It took Keaton five days of shooting to make all the shots.
  • Incredibly Obvious Tail: When the book said "Shadow your man closely," it didn't mean that closely.
  • Instant Costume Change: The vaudeville quick-change gag jumping out the window.
  • The Klutz: In both his waking and dream life, the hero has a tendency to walk into doors.
  • Literal-Minded: One of the tips given by How to Be a Detective is "Shadow your man closely", which the hero follows by walking right behind the Local Sheik and literally copying his every move.
  • Love Triangle: The Projectionist, the Girl, and the Local Sheik
  • Made of Explodium: The film doesn't say exactly what the 13 ball is made of, but dropping it is a bad idea.
  • Master of Disguise:
    • Subverted with the hero in both waking and dream life.
    • Played straight with Gillette.
  • Match Cut: The highlight of the movie is the sequence where the film-within-a-film keeps cutting to different scenes, much to Buster's consternation. In one scene, he's squatting to sit on a bench in a courtyard, when the film cuts to a street scene, leaving Buster to fall on his butt on the sidewalk.
  • Mirror Routine: A variation — Sherlock Jr. appears to be standing before a full-length mirror, then walks through what is actually a doorway between two identical rooms.
  • Offscreen Moment of Awesome: While the projectionist was dreaming he was the titular famous, skilled detective, his female love interest had figured out who the true thief of her father's watch was and cleared the lead's name. Sadly, the audience only gets to see the beginning and ending of said subplot.
  • Pinball Projectile: The hero performs amazing trick shots while playing pool with the bad guys in order to miss (sometimes just barely) the 13 ball. And then he actually hits the 13 ball... which doesn't explode, because he's switched it back with the real one.
  • Poisoned Chalice Switcheroo: Luckily for Keaton, he accepts it only to offer it to one of the villains.
  • The Pratfall: When Keaton slips on a Banana Peel.
  • Punched Across the Room: Possibly justified, since the assailant had just been flung off a speeding motorcycle.
  • Railroad Tracks of Doom: Keaton dodges one of these when first transported into the film.
  • Read the Freaking Manual: Subverted — the projectionist faithfully obeys the dictates of How To Be a Detective.
  • Shout-Out: In the dream, Buster's assistant is named "Gillette". William Gillette was the author and star of the long-running and wildly popular Sherlock Holmes stage play.
  • Show Within a Show: The hero falls asleep watching a melodramatic film, Hearts and Pearls; or, The Lounge Lizard's Lost Love, which influences his dream.
  • Somebody Set Up Us the Bomb: The bad guys' exploding pool ball is turned against them during the climactic chase.
  • Stealth Pun: The title card introducing Sherlock Jr.'s helper. To get the whole joke, you need to know that Gillette, Gem, and Ever-Ready are brands of razor blades, and the first actor to play Sherlock Holmes on the stage was named William Gillette.
    His assistant —
    A Gem who was Ever-Ready in a bad scrape.
  • Sticky Situation: Buster gets tangled up with a sheet of flypaper while sweeping up the theater.
  • Take the Wheel: Sherlock Jr. briefly hands the steering wheel off to the girl so he can throw the exploding pool ball at his pursuers.
  • 13 Is Unlucky: The exploding pool ball is labeled "13".
  • Trapped in TV Land: The projectionst dreams that he walks through the theater and into the movie screen, where he becomes part of the film.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: What happened to the detective that the thugs had hanging in their hideout?