Wednesday, October 19, 2011

#41 Sherlock Jr. (1924)

Sherlock Jr (1924)

So here I am, sitting down in Mid-August to write the first of 6 reviews for movies I watched way back in March. Needless to say, this is going to be a very entertaining experience for me. Unfortunately, I feel this is going to require me to preface this review with a warning to readers that this review may not be anywhere near as thorough or detailed as my previous reviews. As I said, I watched these movies nearly 6 months ago, and although I have notes on the movies that I recorded while I watched them, deciphering these notes and trying to understand what the hell the me of 6 months ago was talking about would probably be more difficult a task than simply writing this review based on vague memories of watching the movie, which are really more memories of how I felt about watching the movie than remembering specific facets of the movie itself. And before the more sensible of my readers come out and say, “why not simply rewatch the movie?” I’m going to go ahead and tell you the peanut gallery to shut it. Calculon does not do two takes!

Anyway to the movie. How do I do these reviews again? It’s been so long that I’ve completely forgotten. Ah yes, I think I always start by identifying my notions and sentiments going into the film. Unfortunately I don’t have some witty or mildly entertaining anecdote about watching this movie as a kid, or being an ignorant, uncultured swine of a high school student. In fact the only anecdote I have about Buster Keaton was blown in the last review. Really this review should be considered the second of a two part review as I watched this movie and Our Hospitality as a sort of double feature as the two came together on the VHS that I watched both these movies on. Generally I don’t like reviewing movies with the same director or actor back to back because then I feel like I’m going to be just running over the same ground, which I feel ends up rather boring to readers and I’m banking on the fact that my readership has a poor memory so they won’t notice when I come back and say the same things 5 months later. But anyway! Here I am, reviewing another Buster Keaton movie directed by Buster Keaton and starring Buster Keaton. I came into this movie after having just seen Our Hospitality, a movie I quite liked, so I was expecting good things, and, I am happy to say that I was in no way let down in my expectations

Yes, this is the part where I summarize the plot. I really don’t like doing the part, and if anything, it’s the part of these reviews that really turns me off from writing the reviews in the first place. But it definitely takes up space, and that is always a plus. I suppose it’s rather like stuffing your pants with paper towels – It adds nothing substantial to the package aside from boosting your ego because it makes you appear much more impressive than you actually are, and it makes the unobservant think you are manly, or in this specific case, cultured or intelligent, but ultimately, when someone bothers to open it up and have a look, you are revealed as a shallow shell of a man who has absolutely nothing to offer. Well that was a fun dive into meta-discussion, wasn’t it? Where was I again? Oh yeah, avoiding the actual review in a sad, sorry attempt to insert some kind of wit into what I don’t doubt is usually a very dull overview of a movie most people have already seen.

This is going to be a tough overview to give as there really isn’t too much of a plot in this movie. Buster Keaton plays a lovable loser who plays the physical manifestation of the general theme of this movie, with which we are greeted at the movie’s opening – that someone who divides his time equally between two tasks will succeed at neither, or to put it in terms more familiar to players of Civilization 4 (if you’ll allow me an attempt at my best Leonard Nimoy impression) “If you try to catch two rabbits, you will lose them both.” Anyway, the point is that Buster is working as a film operator, but he dreams of being an ace detective, because of this; predictably, he’s rather incompetent in both vocations. In spite of his general ineptitude, however, he’s somehow manage to attract the attentions of a beautiful young lady, and so on top of his two chosen vocations, he also blunders about trying to secure her affections, which, possessing neither money nor confidence, he fails at miserably, resulting ultimately in him seemingly losing out to a big jerk who also manages to pin a theft charge on poor Keaton. The movie then gets very weird as a dejected Keaton, after failing to find the man who really committed the theft for which he is blamed, returns to the theater where he falls asleep on the job and we enter into a very bizarre dream sequence within a movie within a movie (Not kidding, it’s like Inception before Inception). Keaton takes on the role of the “World’s greatest detective, the crime crushing criminologist Sherlock Jr.” The movie changes pace entirely now as we watch Keaton live out his fantasies as Sherlock Jr. who plays the suave and sophisticated foil to the blundering, oafish Keaton. The next 20 minutes or so feature Sherlock solving the crime, in what appeared to me far more like a James Bond film than a Holmes tale. In the end, Sherlock gets his man, and by a strange coincidence, Keaton somehow manages to get his man and the girl, without having done anything other than fall asleep at his job. A touching sentiment, I thought.

There were definitely a lot of things I really liked about this movie. It was well acted all around. It was very cleverly written, both from the gags, which were hilarious (more on those further below), and the dialogue and general story. The problem I’ve found with movies such as this one – that is movies without any truly visible plot – is that the characters and context sort of get written out of the movie. Actors like Charlie Chaplin, The Three Stooges, The Marx Brothers, and Buster Keaton got their starts in Vaudeville, and as such, most of their movies are really just their vaudeville acts and gags being transplanted directly to the silver screen. The result is that in movies such as Duck Soup, the characters end up not at all compelling – you never care for their well-being. This is not the case with Sherlock, Jr. You actually find yourself rooting for the characters, you want them to succeed, and you feel sorry for them when they fail. I think, especially for a movie as nonsensical as Sherlock Jr., that is a very impressive feat.

For me the most impressive part of this movie was the gags, and there were quite a lot of them. They ranged from something as simple as Buster slipping and falling repeatedly to things as impressive as Buster undergoing a costume change while jumping through a window or riding a motorcycle on the handlebars. Every one of the gags was expertly pulled off. In this movie I saw my very first banana gag in which the joke was played completely straight and it was simply hilarious. I felt like an oafish cartoon character, pointing and cackling at something as banal as a man slipping and falling on a banana peel, but I couldn’t care less; it was expertly pulled off.

The effects were equally well done. I loved the scene at the beginning of the dream scene where Buster is going through a slew of scenes as something that was once on-screen has since gone away, causing him to fall over. Considering that this movie came out in the early 20s, when film was really just starting to find its identity, the effects in this movie, which only runs in at about 40-50 minutes are just plain spectacular.

My only real problem with this movie was, predictably, the music. Naturally, true to myself, I neglected to note what composition this one was, but as with other silent films I’ve seen, the music is sporadic, overly-modern, and very seldom corresponds to the mood of the particular scene. There was one part where I swear the composer just transposed the James Bond theme to the movie. To say the music was jarring would be putting it very lightly. In spite of this, however, I still found the movie fun, enjoyable, easy to watch, easy to follow, and the zaniness of the gags had me rolling on the floor in very little time.

So why is this movie on the list? I think it’s there because as a movie it is a perfect demonstration of the skill of Buster Keaton, both as an actor and as a director. The pacing in this movie is just superb, it very seldom slows down. The jokes Keaton brings to the movie are classics, and very soon to be cliché and staples of the silver screen. The stunts and special effects, particularly for this time are just spectacular. It has been said that Buster Keaton is the greatest actor-director who ever lived, and seeing both this movie and Our Hospitality, it is clear to see why. The man is a comic genius.

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