I came across a mention of Buster Keaton in Ken Levine’s blog this morning. In the ensuing comments, someone pointed out that most of his early movies are now in public domain, and posted an url to his masterpiece, Sherlock Jr.
I seem to have always known of Keaton, but I’d never before seen one of Keaton’s movies all the way through. Most of the time one sees only a clip or two, usually as some part of a documentary or some sort of Hollywood tribute style show. I also knew enough about him and his contemporaries to recognize that of all the silent comedians, he was my preferred one. Now, thanks to the internet, I had an opportunity to see one of his movies in its entirety.
Wow. Just wow! What an imaginative take on a simple boy-pines-for-girl story. How utterly expressive Buster Keaton is! People frequently talk about Keaton’s astounding physical stunts, and they are certainly worth all the talk, but in this film I’m especially impressed by the film making techniques. The film craft in the dream sequence look pretty slick even by today’s standards, and succeeds in looking quite real.
As always, I’m usually far less impressed with ingenious physical stunts than I am with characterizations and the story. Here, however, the stunts are used to serve the character and the story, rather than being obvious set pieces that drag on a little too long. The final stunt, which has Keaton riding on the handlebars of a bicycle is both impressive and hilarious.
Stunts and comedy bits from such old movies have been borrowed and re-used so frequently that when the originals are seen, they look tame and cliched. This is not the case here. Although you can recognize bits that have been seen many other times in other movies, the execution and the timing is impeccable, and the entire sequence is still fresh and entertaining. At one time during the exciting bicycle handlebar ride, Keaton has a series of very close escapes. As it ends, he breaks the fourth wall giving us his deadpan look, as if sharing our disbelief that he went through all that in one piece. I don’t normally care for breaking the fourth wall, but here its use is perfect.
In this story I was particularly struck by the subliminal stuff. In an early scene one sees a sign that includes the words “Lounge Lizard” in very large print. Heh. Considering that the villain of the piece is a womanizing thief, I figure that the placement and the wording of the sign (which otherwise has only a minor bearing on the story) is no accident. I was also surprised to see this phrase appear in such an early film — it was released in 1924. Somehow I had always thought that the phrase and the archetype originated in the seventies.
The other actors are also very good. Keaton seems to have understood that surrounding yourself with talented actors serves to improve each individual performance, and heightens the overall impact of the story.
I also loved the Bond-esque touches of gadgetry. Never have I seen a game of billiards so fraught with tension. And in the final denouement scene within the dream sequence, Keaton, who is dressed in formal attire, seems to have anticipated James Bond by about 40 years or so.
The film also serves as an illustration of what ordinary life was like 84 years ago. The location shooting, for example, took place near Los Angeles, and it’s interesting to see what a small town look the area had. Later in the movie one can see Thomas Murphy’s Stag Party, which serves as a setup for one of Keaton’s physical stunts. A giant group of men are picnicking outdoors, and are setting up for a game of tug o’ war. Did guys do that at stag parties in the early part of the 20th century? I don’t know, but it seems that the concept of a stag party/cookout involving a group of drunken men having a good time isn’t particularly new.
As a final comment, the music used in this edition of Sherlock Jr. is excellent, if one doesn’t mind some of the anachronistic styles.
Note: For an intriguing might-have-been idea, check out this post from S.T. Karnick’s blog, made a couple of years ago. It’s the sort of thing that makes you go “hmmmm…”