So many silent films inspire today’s filmmakers, as they should. If you can’t convey emotion or action to your audience through visuals and music alone, then you shouldn’t be making movies, you should just try writing a book if you are dead set on being a storyteller. Anyone with a steaming Netflix account should take advantage of the treasure trove of quality silent films they have available. Charlie Chaplin is a favorite of mine from the silent era, or any era for that matter. He wrote, directed, starred in and usually wrote the music for most of his feature films. One of his last films, Limelight, featured fellow silent era film star Buster Keaton. The hilarious stage performances with Keaton compelled me check out his earlier works. The guy was, for lack of a better word, amazing. Arguably the world’s first comedic action star, Keaton did almost all of his own stunts. Because of his stone-face comedic routines and extreme physical stunts, his films are just as enjoyable today as they were 90 years ago. In Sherlock Jr., Keaton actually broke his neck during a scene involving a train filling up at a water tank. He had soreness and pain, but didn’t know it was broken until a doctor told him years later that his fractured neck had healed nicely. The scene where this happens actually ended up in the film.
Sherlock Jr. barely qualifies as a feature film, in my book, with a running time of only 45 minutes. Even with that short running time, the story takes a little bit to get going. Keaton plays a movie theater projectionist, a hazardous profession in those days, who want to become a detective. When he falsely accused of theft, he daydreams of being on the case while on the job. It’s pretty standard for the era as far as plot, leading man trying to get the girl, but where this film will catch you is in its clever presentation. A daydreaming Keaton, represented by a superimposed “ghostly” doppleganger, makes his way into the theater and actually jumps into the detective film being shown on screen. A very slick special effect for its time, and it still looks great today. I’ve added that entire scene at the top. On top of this, there is a tremendous chase scene during the climax of the film. Most of which, Keaton spends on the handle bars of a motorcycle swerving through traffic and other obstacles, unaware that his driver had fallen off long ago.
This is an excellent film with which to introduce yourself to Buster Keaton. It’s fast paced fun with a ton of stunts crammed into the last 20 minutes. I’ve only just started watching Keaton recently and his body of work is far larger than Chaplin, but unlike Chaplin, Keaton did not have creative control for the duration of his career. By the time talkies were invented, MGM had Keaton under lock and key and it pretty much hit the brakes on his career as an auteur. His films from the 1920s are classics and thankfully have been fully restored, many available on Bluray (rare for silent films). Silent films from 100 years ago, just like modern ones, can be incredibly boring when poor production values reign. But when everything comes together perfectly, movie magic is knows no age.
– Wes Kelly