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Always fresh, ever surprising -- revisiting a Buster Keaton comedy guarantees a great time with prime-quality comedy. Although not a smashing success when new, 1924's Sherlock Jr. has grown in stature as one of his more fascinating flights of cinematic fancy. While Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin were developing their own styles, Keaton combined slapstick and visual tricks with an inquisitive approach to movie mechanics, constructing a complex physical world around his famous "great stone face". He develops his gags with near-mechanical precision.
Kino International continues its Buster Keaton series of Blu-ray discs with a double bill of his early features Sherlock Jr. & Three Ages that includes a number of eye-opening extras. Both films are a delight to watch, and frequently fall-down funny. Sherlock Jr. displays camera tricks that prove Keaton to be a master of his medium.
A plot description makes Sherlock Jr. seem like a fairly ordinary comedy. Buster is a movie projectionist frustrated in love because the object of his affections (Kathryn McGuire) is attracted to a dishonest rival (Ward Crane). Buster is also an aspiring detective, and when the girl's father's pocket watch disappears he tries to take charge of the situation. But the rival contrives to make Buster look like the culprit. While projecting a show about two lovers and a similar domestic crime, Buster experiences a bizarre daydream of "entering" the world of the movie. He dreams that he walks right up to the front of the theater and steps into the screen. The last act of the film introduces one pell-mell action thrill after another, a cascade of beautifully engineered chase stunts. Buster rides a motorcycle while sitting on the handlebars, barely missing trains and trucks. He plummets from a tall building and uses a surprisingly effective bit of stage magic to make an instantaneous costume change. The crime is solved and the girl rescued, all within Buster's cinematic daydream.
Keaton had used dream sequences in several of his comedy shorts, and a big section of Sherlock Jr. takes place in a sustained fantasy of wish fulfillment. The characters and events in Buster's movie dream closely parallel his real-life romantic problems, to the extent that the movie's heroine becomes Buster's girlfriend, etc.. Just by falling asleep, Buster replays his problems in an alternate cinematic universe.
Film critics have marveled at this central dream sequence for the better part of a century. Fighting his way back "into the screen", Buster becomes caught within the filmic convention of The Cut. While the audience and orchestra continue watching, Buster stays on screen as the film cuts between different locations. Finding himself in a garden, Buster sits on a bench, but the scene changes to a busy street and he falls backwards into traffic. The street changes into a rocky cliff, and he almost loses his balance. A few seconds later Buster tries to dive into the ocean, but the scene changes to a snowy landscape. He ends up stuck in the snow, with his legs flailing about.
One must appreciate the state of film effects in 1924 to understand the technical accomplishment involved. Some of the "movie screen" scenes in the dream are clever double exposures, but others are built right into the theater set, where the screen should be. Keaton's absurd transitions had to be measured with great precision to place him in the exact correct position across cuts. Buster leans against a tree just as the scene cuts to a garden; his position between the two shots is a perfect match.
Once the cutting games are over, the dream world becomes an exaggeration of Buster's waking dilemma. Buster enters the movie story as "Sherlock Jr.", a master detective summoned to find a purloined necklace. The thieves try to kill him with a trick chair and an explosive billiard ball, to no avail. Buster's cinematic alter ego Sherlock Jr. exhibits the self-confidence that the "real" Buster lacks. This of course cues the thrilling physical stunts when Sherlock chases the villains.
A couple of wild stunts were accomplished by double exposures and running the camera backwards, but others would appear to be extremely dangerous. Keaton learned to drive a motorbike while sitting on the handlebars. He had no way of applying the brakes as he rides through traffic. Buster attempts a leap between two buildings and doesn't make it, a stunt that looks guaranteed to break one's neck. Another seemingly less hazardous gag requires Buster to be knocked to some railroad tracks by water from a spout. Years later, a doctor informed Keaton of a hairline fracture in his neck that had never been noticed before. From the doctor's description, Keaton realized that the injury had to have happened on Sherlock Jr., when he fell a few feet to the rails.
1923's Three Ages is conceptually less advanced, but often just as funny. Basically a cinematic in-joke on D.W. Griffith's Intolerance, the film compares and contrasts three identical stories set in the Stone Age, Roman times and the "modern, fast and greedy" present. Buster pursues the girl (Margaret Leahy) in all three ages of the title: as a caveman, a Roman citizen and a young man about town. Three iterations of her parents prefer the more aggressive villain (Wallace Beery). Not yet the flabby blowhard of his MGM talkies, Beery plays a generic Bluto type. The rivals compete, respectively, in trial by combat, a chariot race and a football game. Buster to the 3rd power eventually wins, by a combination of pragmatism and blind luck.
The Intolerance spoof makes no critical claim on Griffith, as Keaton instead derives his humor by adapting gags to the three time periods. Buster's attempts to make his girlfriend jealous by romancing another girl backfire in slightly different ways. The cave girl he chooses turns out to be much bigger than he, and throws him off a cliff. The Roman nymph is a champion wrestler. The 1923 Buster tries to get close to another man's date in a restaurant, only to lose his head after drinking some forbidden bootleg gin. The chariot race provides some big laughs when Buster arrives in a rig pulled by dogs instead of horses. When one dog injures a paw, Buster swaps it for a "spare" dog kept in a box on the back of the chariot! The rivalry gag is almost the same as in Sherlock Jr.-- the villain turns out to be a nasty bigamist. Buster's race to the church is the expected marvel of compressed stunts and gags, but he arrives in time to save the day.
Three Ages makes use of a number of sophisticated camera techniques, including an elaborate foreground miniature for the Roman stadium scenes, and Willis O'Brien-style stop-motion animation for a few shots of caveman Buster riding in the back of a Brontosaurus. The action stunts are breathtaking. Escaping from a police station, Buster climbs a building and swings downward on a loose drainpipe. It catapults him into the window of a fire station, where he slides down the fire pole and leaps onto a departing fire truck --- which takes him right back to the police station!
Keaton ends the modern story with a wry joke. Epilogues to both of the earlier "ages" show Buster with a full brood of offspring, appropriately clad in bearskins and Roman togas. But the modern couple quietly emerges from their house accompanied only by a little dog on a leash. Buster would top this "what happens after the big kiss" gag in his later College with a more cynical black-comedy montage. The happy lovers grow old and gray before finally transforming into a pair of tombstones. Fade out.
Kino International's Blu-ray of Sherlock Jr. & Three Ages is a fine HD transfer of these early vintage comedy silents. Sherlock Jr. is for the most part in fine shape. Speckling is apparent on inter-title cards and some scratches crop up here and there. We also notice that a missing shot or two are represented by inferior sources. One of these is a terrific billiard table trick that Keaton later edited out of the "dream" sequence. The older Three Ages has survived intact but in less perfect condition. Many scenes are marred by flickering patterns of very light image deterioration. The way some material is untouched and other parts are affected, it's possible that tinted sections of the archival copy may have decomposed at a different rate.
Sherlock Jr. carries three separate music choices: the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, the Club Foot Orchestra and a jazz score compiled by Jay Ward. Three Ages has a Robert Israel score, an organ score by Lee Erwin and a piano score.
David Kalat's commentary and a short documentary by David B. Pearson offer a wealth of information and opinion about Sherlock Jr.. Experts still debate the assertion that Keaton's frequent partner Roscoe Arbuckle may have directed parts of the film. Kalat deconstructs the film's sophisticated dream structure, noting the absurdity of Keaton restricting "impossible" action to the movie-within-a movie -- on grounds of credibility.
Three Ages includes Man's Genesis, a 1912 D.W. Griffith short with a similar caveman setting. Buster Keaton may have hedged his bet by designing the show so that it could be broken down into three two-reel comedy shorts, should audiences not accept him as a feature film star. To see how this would work, another extra re-edits Three Ages' stories into separate short subjects.
Both films carry fascinating photo-comparison featurettes by John Bengtson, author of Silent Shadows. Bengtson specializes in determining the exact locations where silent films were shot, and shows us plenty of examples. The Stone Age hills in Three Ages were filmed out in Chatsworth, and Keaton used some of the structures of the then-new L.A. Coliseum for the Roman segment. Locations for Sherlock Jr. range all over Hollywood and Orange County. Los Angeles residents will be impressed to see which local streets served as "famous" filmic locations.
I was especially surprised to discover that part of Buster's motorcycle chase in Sherlock Jr. took place literally a hundred feet outside my window, across the fence on Larchmont Blvd. Bengtson's photos will have me looking at my neighborhood in an entirely different light. Keaton's studio was less than a mile away, up near where I learned to cut TV spots in Hollywood proper. One can't throw a stick around these streets without coming upon another meaningful movie location -- but it's taken a lifetime to find out about all of them.
Kino's producer and writer Bret Wood is again responsible for the disc's handsome packaging design.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Sherlock Jr. & Three Ages Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.