I figure if I was gonna jump in to the world of silent movies, I could do a lot worse than starting with one of the big two names. In Sherlock Jr. the initial title cards setup Buster Keaton’s character as a cinema employee and student detective. Initially, this seemed like a pretty ham fisted attempt to link a series of otherwise unrelated sketches. The first, Keaton struggling for money to buy his sweetheart chocolates before a date. This simple sequence is nothing more than Keaton sweeping rubbish in front of the cinema, talking to a couple of people while finding and losing money. Such a simple premise, but full of great jokes.
Later, at the home of his sweetheart, her father’s pocket watch is stolen and Keaton is setup as the crook. Dejected, he goes back to work at the cinema and falls asleep while running the projector. This is where Sherlock Jr. really takes off.
A lengthy dream sequence, that takes up around half of the total running time, sees Keaton enter the movie he’s projecting and get caught up in a stolen pearls mystery that parallels his own troubles with the missing pocket watch. This is a really elaborately scripted, meticulously shot and amazingly edited fantasy sequence that must have been mind blowing at the time. It really is impressive to see some of the tricks and effects they pull off, all in camera, achieved through nothing more than editing and performance.
Four years later, Keaton made Steamboat Bill Jr. (there are no character or thematic links between the two, only the “Jr.” suffix in their titles). This is definitely a step up in ambition, performance and film making skill in every way. While Sherlock clocks in at around 40 minutes, Steamboat breaks the one hour barrier. And Keaton uses the extra running time awesomely.
This is much more like the kind of straight forward movie plot we see today. Where Sherlock is an excuse for sketches to be loosely strung together, Steamboat has a real, flowing narrative that works as an excuse for sketches to be tightly strung together while telling a Romeo and Juliet style romance.
Keaton plays William Canfield Junior. He arrives in the town of River Junction, fresh from college in Boston, to work on his father’s rundown steamboat. Keaton’s Bill Jr. is hardly the man’s man Bill Sr. was hoping for in a son and this clash of ideologies leads to some of the funniest sequences. Coincidentally, Bill Jr’s college sweetheart also arrives in River Junction. Even more coincidentally, she’s the daughter of Bill Sr’s arch rival, the owner of a new luxurious riverboat.
Keaton’s ever escalating desperation to please his father and his girlfriend, while also adapting to life on the river, make for some of the best physical comedy you’ll ever see. Like with Sherlock Jr, I spent most of the movie wondering how those things were physically possible. But they have to be, because with no high tech special effects or CGI to rely on in the 20s, the only way they could be done was physically.
When I decided to watch Sherlock Jr. and Steamboat Jr, it almost felt like homework. Like I had to get these two under my belt to help my movie nerd cred. But once I actually watched them, I realised why they’re still talked about today, not because they’re “important”, historical documents, but because Buster Keaton was amazing and because these are great, funny, well made movies.