Silents are Golden: A Closer Look At: Sherlock Jr. (1924)

A Closer Look At: Sherlock Jr. (1924)

buster keaton
Buster Keaton, Sherlock Jr

2024 marks the 100th anniversary of one of Buster Keaton’s most beloved films: his third feature, Sherlock Jr. (1924). Still every bit as funny and fresh as it was in the early 20th century, its sophisticated special effects have also aged remarkably well–even to today’s CGI-accustomed audiences.

Compared to the two Keaton features that it was sandwiched between, the period piece Our Hospitality (1923) and the lost-at-sea adventure The Navigator (1924), Sherlock Jr. was a much smaller-scale film. Keaton had originally envisioned adapting the popular 1922 play Merton of the Movies, about a young man from a small town who dreams of becoming a Hollywood star. However, Famous Players-Lasky had snapped up the rights and were planning on making a version starring Glenn Hunter. Keaton decided to use a similar story revolving around a small town theater projectionist, who in this case dreams of becoming a famous detective.

buster keaton sherlock jr how to be a detective

Keaton would later credit his cameraman, Elgin Lessley, for coming up with the idea of having much of the film take place in a dream. Lessley insisted that many of the surreal movie-themed gags Keaton had in mind wouldn’t work in a “legitimate” story, and that audiences were more likely to accept the topsy-turvy logic of the dream world. This turned out to be an excellent idea, freeing them to create the memorable scenes of Keaton jumping in and out of a movie screen that are still admired today.

The studio started filming in November of 1923 under the working title of The Misfit. The leading lady was initially played by Marion Harlan, who apparently had to drop out after falling ill. She was replaced by Kathryn McGuire, a petite former Mack Sennett comedienne who paired well with the 5’6” Keaton. Ward Crane was cast as the intimidating rival for McGuire’s hand, and Keaton’s father Joe would also make an appearance as the girl’s father.

sherlock jr 1

Another major addition to the film’s production–at least temporarily–was Keaton’s old pal Roscoe Arbuckle, who was brought on as a co-director. Arbuckle’s life had been upended in 1921 after actress Virginia Rappe fell ill at a party he hosted in San Francisco, later passing away. After several sensational trials for manslaughter he was acquitted of all charges, but he had been relegated to working quietly behind the camera ever since. It only took a few days for Keaton to realize that the patient, genial comedian he had worked with in the past now had a hair-trigger temper, his nerves still shattered from undergoing those trials. He gently thanked Arbuckle for his help and told him he now felt comfortable directing himself.

By now the story had evolved into Keaton playing a humble projectionist moonlighting as a detective while also contending with a rival for his girl’s hand. The rival steals a pocketwatch belonging to the girl’s father and blames Buster for it. Disgraced, a dejected Buster dreams that he is the famous, dashing detective Sherlock Jr., who retrieves a stolen necklace of pearls. Apparently a 1922 John Barrymore film, Sherlock Holmes, inspired the change in title.

buster keaton sherlock jr

Keaton performed numerous stunts for the film, from riding alone on the handlebars of a fast-moving motorcycle to performing a vaudeville trick where he appeared to disappear into a small case being held by an assistant. The most dangerous stunt showed him running along the top of a moving train as it rumbled past a water tower. He grabbed a rope hanging from the tower’s spout and the resulting torrent of water pushed him down onto the tracks below. He hit one of the rails directly on his neck. The film shows him springing up and running off unscathed, but after the cameras stopped rolling he had a lingering headache that he “cured” with a couple of stiff drinks. Decades later, an x-ray taken during a routine checkup revealed he’d gotten a neck fracture–in such a precise spot that it healed without him being aware of it.

buster keaton sherlock jr with cop

Other feats performed by Keaton included doing all the billiard ball tricks during the pool room sequence, which took several months of lessons from an expert pool player, and of course the wonderful “film within a film” sequence. Buster, having fallen asleep, is dreaming that he’s watching the film Hearts and Pearls and he jumps into the movie screen. While he’s onscreen the scenes suddenly change around him, depositing him into city streets, jungles of wildcats, snowy landscapes, and so on. The effect was done by having Lessley measure the precise distance from Keaton to the camera and to the edges of the frame–precise down to the fraction of an inch–so he could get in the exact right place for each shot.

buster keaton sherlock jr on screen

Once Sherlock finished production in February of 1924 Keaton had it previewed in Long Beach, Glendale, and finally Los Angeles, tweaking the film after each audience reaction. The finished product ran under five reels, or about 45 minutes, making it shorter than the average comedy feature.

Sherlock Jr. was generally well-received and did well at the box office, although it didn’t perform as well as Our Hospitality and would be somewhat overshadowed by the phenomenal success of Keaton’s next picture, The Navigator (1924). Yet its reputation has steadily grown over time, and many fans consider it one of the great comedian’s best. Today, a full 100 years later, its centenary has been celebrated with public screenings at several film festivals, and of course, plenty of love from fans online.

sherlock jr poster

–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Lea’s Silents are Golden articles here.

Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.

This entry was posted in Posts by Lea Stans, Silents are Golden and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Silents are Golden: A Closer Look At: Sherlock Jr. (1924)

  1. Nitrate Glow says:

    This is the movie that made me a devoted Keaton fan for life. It’s just about the most perfect introduction to the wonders of silent cinema to the uninitiated: it’s under an hour, it’s funny, it’s technically dazzling, and the meta commentary on film escapism is still relevant. A masterpiece all around!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.