Public reception for Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. since it’s release in May 1924 is as varied as your typical Hollywood release. The critiques vary from it being his worst film to being the best silent film ever created. I will examine reviews that are contemporary with the film’s release, as well as some reviews / critiques written many years later.
Periodicals and Journals
The “New York Times” article dated May 26th 1924 by an unknown author gives a favorable review. It concludes with “…is a extremely good comedy which will give you plenty of amusement, so as long as you permit Mr. Keaton to glide into his work with his usual deliberation” This reviewer seemed to have liked the idea that Keaton joined and became the action onscreen, setting himself up for comedic moments.
In October 1975 Claude Beylie writes a favorable short review in French magazine “Ecran”. He states “Sherlock Junior est, par excellence, le film de l’imagination au pouvoir; sans nulle arrière-pensée politique, il va sans dire – encore que l’hésitation du héros, a l’extrême fin, a s’engager dans la vie bourgeoise ait quelque chose d’assez subtilement contestataire.” Beylie is right that this film has no blatant political messages and or commentary whether it be subliminal or as in your face such as Chaplin’s The Great Dictator.
May 17 1924 C. S. Sewell writes in “Moving Picture World” that “Sherlock Jr. is an unusually cleverly constructed comedy film and Buster and his gag men deserve credit for their ingenuity.” He also states that as far as “Moving Picture World” knows that the effect of the main character joining the action of a film within a film has never been employed and that this a highly original concept. In terms of its gags the reviewer comments that some of his gags are familiar and that this is “probably not as hilarious as some of his other comedies, and may not provoke such loud laughs…” but says that the film is original and amusing all the way through.
July 24 1924 the reviewer from “Photoplay” magazine says that “this is by no means Keaton’s most hilarious offering, but it is short, snappy and amusing.” He also makes reference to Keaton’s immobile face, as do other reviewers; rightfully commenting that this is one of his trademarks.
Fred from “Variety” magazine on May 28th 1924 gives a gloom review of the film. “…is about as unfunny as a hospital operating room.” He furthers his point by predicting that the film will be a flop. The reviewer does not support his point with concrete examples, the review seems more like Buster bashing, than an objective film review. The only time he attempts to support his point that this is a bad film is to say how bad the chase scenes were in comparison to Harold Lloyd’s “last picture” (he doesn’t even give us the name of Lloyd’s last picture! – must have been minutes from print time and couldn’t be bothered to look it up.) This reviewer does however point out like all other reviewers that the film does contain an element of originality to it. He likes the moment where Buster joins the filmic action that he is projecting on screen. So essentially Buster is in a film within a film. Overall I was glad to find a review that did not praise the film, but this reviewer seemed like he had an axe to grind with Keaton rather than giving an impartial review.
Daniel Sauvaget in his article in “Revue du Cinema” in May 1991 writes that “techniquement le travail est extraordinaire mais d’une densité inégale tout au long du film.” We should note however that the reviewer watched a restored version with added sound effects such as traffic sounds, slamming doors and walking sounds. He comments that on top of the new jazzy soundtrack that it seems like a little much. He does note however that this is one of Keaton’s more famously funny films historically for its gags.
Web based reviews:
On the “Combustible Celluloid” web site Jeffrey M. Anderson writes an article concerning Sherlock Jr. stating that this is his choice for “the greatest film ever made.” One of the reasons is because of its length is 45 minutes; “it feels like a feature length and has some of the most astonishing and thoughtful special effects ever put on film.” Although he does make better points later on the article, the beginning is quite weak. To say that to him it is the best film ever made and give for your first reason that it is because how short it is; then it is hard to take this reviewer seriously if that is his criteria for rating a film. He continues by saying that the reason people go to the movies is escapism, to identify with a character. He says Sherlock Jr. is about that very notion. In the film Buster dreams about becoming a detective, probably inspired by watching detective films. So Sherlock Jr. is both a fantasy film and highly realistic. A fantasy because Buster joins the action on screen in the movie theatre in the movie we are watching. Realistic because it parallels real life; people dream to be someone special like in the movies and this is the role that Keaton in portraying. Anderson also makes an interesting comment regarding censorship at the time in the movies. The film ends with a fade to black on Buster, it then fades back from black to see Buster with his girl and surrounded by kids. It is a comment on how sex is censored in the movies but it cannot be censored in our private lives.
Web site “Film in Context” Simon Eaton writes a short review of Sherlock Jr. He writes a positive review stating the following: “…is his most avant-garde film.” “…marvelous and still modern.” “…remarkable feature displaying all that makes Keaton great.” “…ingenious and hilarious gags.” Like the following reviews he touches upon the subject that “Keaton explores the illusion of cinematic reality.”
Jim Emerson published an article on the web called “The Beauty of Buster” mainly talking about the beautiful quirky moments in some if Keaton’s films. Sherlock Jr. is mentioned in the context where Buster can see an every day ordinary object and turn it into something the average person would not think of. For example in One Week Buster needs to get to the roof of his house, so he detaches the balcony railing and turns it around sideways creating a step ladder to reach his destination. In Sherlock Jr. a car becomes a sailboat when it finds itself in the water. Emerson writes “Keaton sees through ordinary objects and appreciated them for their essential properties and their protean possibilities. To him all objects (alive or inanimate) assume identities that are merely temporary; everything is always in a flux.”
Another web site called “Senses of Cinema” Dan Callahan writes an article more focused on the life and works of Buster Keaton but touches briefly on Sherlock Jr. He writes “Keaton gives as a perfect demonstration of what it would be like to climb on screen and become part of the movie we are watching. Its unforgettable” He touched on the fantasy aspect of the film as well saying that “…when he steps onto the screen he fulfills something in all of us.” Everyone who has seen a movie has imagined themselves as one of the characters. Our daily lives and decisions we make are sometimes molded around what we think our favorite movie character would do. Keaton is a true auteur and “understands the dream like nature of films.” These points were unfortunately very brief, but thankfully the next article goes more into details concerning this dream like nature and duality in the film.
Web site “CultureDose.net” there is a great review by Tony Pellum talking about Sherlock Jr. self reflexivity. It starts off with a tacky comparison between Chaplin & Keaton (like most articles on him do) and draws a parallel between Chaplin being like The Beatles and Keaton being like The Beach Boys!??! The real review starts when Pellum writes “Sherlock Jr. is as much a testament to technology as any modernist piece.” He says that we cannot say that Sherlock Jr. is a better film that Steamboat Jr. or The General but that there is something about it that separates it; it’s innovative “beyond all established narrative tendencies all while looking at itself. This makes Buster Keaton not only the first modernist of cinema but also the first post modernist of cinema.” He states that the dream sequence in the film not only breaks narrative tradition of becoming a film within a film but it marks one of “cinema’s first postmodern tendencies toward the self reflexive all while creating, arguably, Keaton’s best sequence in a career of still unparalleled amalgamation of physical comedy and action.” He also says that when Keaton steps into the role of Sherlock Jr. that it is hands down the “tightest and most hilarious sequence of silent comedy, mastering the sight gag, filmic montage, suspense and comedic timing…” He also makes a comment on the last scene being self reflexive of cinema and reality as well. He is in the projection booth (he got the girl) and before kissing her he peers out of the booth to get a lesson in love as characters are kissing on the screen. “It is a testament to films persuasive nature.” Keaton somehow new that the medium he was working in was having an influence on everyday people, and he showed us this in this film.
All articles whether they be an overall positive or negative review of Sherlock Jr. every single reviewer commented on the fact that they enjoyed the part where Buster joined the film he was projecting in the movie theatre. Some saying that it was highly original, to funny to it being a comment on the self reflexivity of cinema. This was the common thread in all articles.