DCA Film Club 12: Sherlock Jr

19 June 2020

Welcome to our weekly Film Club! We'll be recommending great films to watch at home, before meeting in our Facebook group or your preferred social media to chat about the film using #DCAFilmClub!

DCA Film Club sees our Cinema Team talk about our favourite filmmakers by looking at their short films. We hope they will inspire you to go off and watch something else, be it online or at a cinema near you (when it reopens of course). You can read our Head of Cinema Alice's full introduction to DCA Film Club here.

This week, we're thrilled to welcome our first guest contributor, silent film expert Matthew Jarron from the University of Dundee. Matthew has chosen Buster Keaton's 1924 silent comedy Sherlock Jr. Read on for Matthew's fascinating introduction to the film before you watch the film for free on YouTube. This one's longer than our usual shorts, so grab a cuppa and get comfy! Remember if you have a smart TV, you may be able to watch via the YouTube app; search 'Sherlock Jr Public Domain'.

Introduction from Matthew Jarron, University of Dundee

Okay, so technically this is a feature film not a short, but it’s only 44 minutes so we’re happy to count it. In the 1920s, any film of five reels or more counted as a feature – it was only in the 1930s that film lengths became more standardised, with shorts normally one or two reels (10-20 mins) and features six reels (1 hour) and upwards. 

I’m not going to beat about the bush here – Buster Keaton is the greatest film maker that ever lived. End of. Released in 1924, Sherlock Jr was his 22nd film (and third feature) as writer, director and star. He had begun his career as a child performer in vaudeville but from the moment he first strayed onto a film set in 1917 he became obsessed with the medium. Sherlock Jr is Keaton’s love letter to the cinema, and arguably the first real film about film. Of course there had been plenty of comedies set in cinemas, but this film goes further – much further – into the whole metaphysical nature of cinema – its influence over us, its power of illusion, its ability to sell us clichés which bear no reality to the real world. Keaton also explores the physical nature of film as well – as strips of celluloid glued together to transport us from place to place through the power of editing. 

Keaton plays a cinema projectionist who (in an extended dream sequence) enters the film he is projecting. At first he is lost – caught in a montage sequence – but soon he learns the rules of film and becomes the movie’s dashing hero, something he has utterly failed at in his ‘real’ life. It’s an astonishingly post-modern concept which has influenced numerous other films, including The Purple Rose of Cairo, Mulholland Drive and of course Daffy Duck’s great masterpiece Duck Amuck.     

What makes all Keaton’s films so dazzling to watch – apart from his incredibly subtle, stone-faced but moon-eyed performances – is his astonishing physical and technical prowess. More than any of his other films, Sherlock Jr is filled with seemingly impossible gags and stunts that Keaton somehow made possible. He uses no doubles and (of course) no CGI, and was willing to go to any lengths to get the shot he wanted – to the extent that you can literally watch him breaking his own neck at one point on screen (it happens at the 15m27s mark, and as you’ll see he just gets up and carries on!).       

I could go on, but it’s much better that you just watch the film – enjoy!

Further reading

This fascinating video essay about Sherlock Jr reveals some of the technical wizardry that Keaton used to create some of the film’s extraordinary sequences, and also explores the potential role of Fatty Arbuckle as uncredited co-director.

A Hard Act to Follow is an in-depth three-part documentary about Keaton’s life and career, packed with wonderful film clips and revealing interviews. I can’t recommend it highly enough:

Part 1 
Part 2
Part 3

Like many silent films, Keaton’s work is often presented in poor quality versions with badly chosen music. Although numerous restorations have been made, not all do the films proper justice, so beware! Here are a few choice picks:

The General (1926) – my personal choice for the greatest film ever made. This version uses Carl Davis’s magnificent score but unfortunately ends abruptly without the play-out music which Davis originally composed. However it’s the best version available online.

Steamboat Bill Jr (1928) – Keaton’s last independent production and one of his best films.

The Goat (1921) – one of Keaton’s best short films.

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