Thursday, 31 October 2013

Keep It Classic Part 3: Silent Justice

There were some big names back in the olden days of film. On posters you would see BORIS KARLOFF or CHARLIE CHAPLIN taking up half the poster. Films like 'The Artist' or 'Sunset Blvd.' looks at a stars just like these and sum up one thing: to be a star in the days of silent movies was a glorious experience - even if the fall from fame was not. Today we look at one of these big names in, arguably, his most famous role. This is Buster Keaton's Sherlock Jr.

The film opens with a lowly projectionist (Keaton) reading a book named 'How To Be A Detective' whilst sitting in a rather filthy theatre. Soon, though, the nameless projectionist is told to begin cleaning which he, reluctantly, does. We see Keaton's character as an unlucky soul. Finding dollars that will help him buy chocolate only to have people claim the money, being falsely claimed as the thief of a watch, proving unimpressive to the girl (Kathryn McGuire) he intends to marry. Naturally, he wants to clear his name and show himself as a great detective and begins working on the case of the stolen watch. But alas, his poor luck follows him and he ends up back in his projection booth with nothing. He dozes off and thus begins the greatest dream of all time as the projectionist becomes Sherlock Jr. and starts work on the case of the stolen pearls.

Keaton had to train hard for his stunts.

Keaton was famous for a reason. His name is well known because of the things he did. He would not be remembered still if there was nothing notable about his performances. What more needs to be said? Well, let us see. Keaton is from an elite class of performer that hardly exists in the modern age. He not only directed and starred in Sherlock Jr., but he also did all of his own stunts - even unknowingly fracturing his neck along the way. There is an athleticism to Keaton's performance as he jumps left right and centre, perfectly timing a walking skit as he shadows a man, or even falling out of a cinema screen, over a piano, and through a railing. Only a few others had a mind like Keaton. (See Larry Griswald and Harold Lloyd). He is undoubtedly one of the most naturally hilarious men to grace the screen but also to be behind the camera. His own dedication to performance clearly rubs off on his surrounding cast. The antagonists' continued failed attempts to assassinate him often backfire causing roaring laughter due to the way in which Keaton has clearly directed the scenes. A masterful achievement.

You should be able to see right through Keaton impersonators.

As well as directing the performance to a high standard, he also controls every aspect of the film with authority and ingenuity. He uses some incredible camera techniques, even for today, in order to create the beginning of the dream sequence in which he teleports from location to location at unfortunately timed moments. There are scenes in which he is almost hit by trains, scenes where he tangles from water pipes and gets drenched, and a moment where he jumps through a window and literally into a disguise. One of the most visually incredible scenes is when his assistant, Gillette (Ford West), opens a suitcase in front of his body and Sherlock Jr. dives through both the case and the body, and through the wall, and then Gillette simply walks away. (Clip can be found here) A completely visually captivating film. Of course, this is how a silent film should be. The score to accompany the film is also outstanding and, during the motorcycle chase, sounds like an inspiration to the music of James Bond - whether there is any truth in that is speculative, there is no evidence of it.

A truly hilarious piece of cinema in the most universal of ways. Visual comedy will assuredly never die even if it is now combined with verbal humour. Keaton is a screen legend for certain and Sherlock Jr. is a masterpiece.

Best Bit? There are many moments to choose from. It would probably be when Sherlock Jr. first leaps through a window into a dress of some form, and then leaps through Gillette's body. Or the pool trick shots. Thse are extremely impressive and took five days of filming.

(Note, the whole film can be found on Youtube, or, for a higher quality version, on Netflix)