"We are lost! He is sending for the world's greatest detective - Sherlock Jr.!"
After watching several of Chaplin's classic films, I decided it was time to give Buster Keaton an opportunity beginning with one of his most revered movies, Sherlock Jr. Keaton and Chaplin dominated the silent movie era, but most people are divisive as to who was the most talented actor-director of that time. So far I'm on Chaplin's side although I still have to give Keaton another shot with The General. Perhaps the problem I had with Sherlock Jr. is that I'm not a big fan of surreal films. I know everyone seems to love this genre, but there are very few surreal movies that work for me. I can see how Buster Keaton garners recognition for his magical work in this film, being one of the first to actually incorporate dream sequences into his movie. Many other films (and especially cartoons) were inspired from several scenes in Sherlock Jr, like the one in which Keaton's character jumps into a movie screen and becomes a character in the movie that is being projected (better known as "the movie within a movie" sequence). There are several action scenes including some spectacular chases that make you wonder how Keaton could have shot them way back in 1924. I was more impressed with this wizard like aspect of Keaton than on his comedic performance. His deadpan expressions were outdone by the gadgets he devised to create such advanced special effects. Despite being bored by the story, I have to give Keaton credit for his inventive and magical sequences.
At the beginning of this silent film, written by Jean Havez, Joseph Mitchell, and Clyde Bruckman the title card reads: "There is an old proverb which says: Don't try to do two things at once and expect to do justice to both. This is the story of a boy who tried it. While employed as a moving picture operator in a small town theater he was also studying to be a detective." We are then introduced to the projectionist (Buster Keaton) who is reading a detective book instead of cleaning up the theater. After work, he goes to visit his girl (Kathryn McGuire) and buys her a ring. Another man (played by Ward Crane), who is also fighting for the girl's affection happens to be at the house and steals her father's chain watch and incriminates the projectionist. The girl's father (Joe Keaton) kicks him out of his home and tells him never to return again. The projectionist sadly returns to work where he falls asleep and dreams of being a detective in the film that is being projected. In his dreams, he becomes the hero of the film and the adventure begins.
Buster Keaton's film has some brilliant and magical sequences, and I think it is a bit unfair to compare him with Chaplin because he has a very different style. Chaplin has a more humane approach, writes his own stories and composes them as well, while Keaton does some impressive work behind the lens using some trickery. As performers they both have different styles, Chaplin uses a lot of physical comedy while Keaton uses deadpan humor and incorporates a lot of action scenes doing some risky stunts (in the train sequence he actually fractured his neck). Depending on which style you like best, you will probably claim Keaton or Chaplin is better, but it would be unfair to say one is less talented than the other because they both proved to be geniuses during the silent era and have left us with a rich legacy. I can see sparks of both in contemporary film making. Despite not being a fan of this film as much as others I still need to watch Keaton's The General to get a clearer picture of his style.