And so begins Buster Keaton's 1924 film, Sherlock Jr. Keaton himself plays the hapless projector/would-be detective, and without fail hilarity ensues. There has been much debate among cinephiles in Keaton vs. Charlie Chaplin, but what makes Keaton so great, I think, is his hangdog demeanor and lovable daffiness: its a miracle his characters make it to the end of any of his films. In this film, the local sheik (Ward Crane) has stolen a watch from the father (Joe Keaton) of the girl (Kathryn McGuire) whom the projectionist is trying to woo. The projectionist decides to take on the case himself, but once he's framed, he's kicked out of the house and left to his other job, where he escapes into the world of film to become Sherlock Jr., the world's greatest detective.
The film plays with a lot of ideas on the escapism of the movies, allowing the projectionist to become a suave and brilliant (but still prone to mayhem) detective who can solve the case and win the girl. Throughout the film, we get to experience the wish-fulfillment that the movies provide for many of us, and Keaton's staging of the scenes in which he's explicitly commenting on this is spectacular. Take, for example, my choice for favorite shot (I'm actually going to cheat a bit here, with a series of shots instead of just one) (also: spoiler alert):
The projectionist, alone in his booth, awakens from his fantasy, only to see that life isn't always like the movies. However, the girl has already found the real culprit in the crime, and seeks out the projectionist in his booth, and as she apologizes to him, he looks to the screen for guidance...
Keaton frames both couples, allowing us to see how the projectionist's reality and fantasy have come together. In a sense, we get art imitating life, or, rather, life imitating art, as the projectionist takes his cues from the screen. Keaton seems to be asking: how do movies, or art in general, influence our daily lives? Do we, as an audience, take our cues from what we are watching, whether explicitly or subliminally? Its an argument that still continues to this day.
As the projectionist gives the girl a peck, rather than a passionate kiss, Keaton seems to comically suggest, "well, maybe..."
...even if we're not entirely certain whether that influence is necessarily positive or negative.
Other great shots:
I just love the composition of this shot, with Sherlock Jr. riding a driverless motorcycle while staring ahead at an oncoming train. Its a thing of beauty.
A nice little piece of cinematic illusion: that's the magic of the movies!
This has been a contribution to The Film Experience's Hit Me with Your Best Shot.