In a time when cinema technology had yet to advance to the point that we could synchronize sound with moving images, I find it amazing the effects movie makers were able to create during this very rudimentary stage of the medium. Buster Keaton in directing himself in Sherlock Jr. in 1924 boggles the mind with the special effect he was able to create. No only does he duplicate himself on screen, but he walks into another movie and magically changes his surroundings in the blink of an eye.
Buster works as a movie projectionist and is reading up on how to be a detective. He is in love with a young woman whose affections are also sought by another man. That man, “The Rival” (Ward Crane), steals a pocket watch to get money enough to buy “The Girl” (Kathryn McGuire) a gift and frames the crime on Buster. While sleeping in the projection booth at the theater, Buster walks out of his own body and gazes at the screen where he sees the main characters transformed into his love interest and his rival. He walks through the theater and enters the movie screen where he is then transported from a garden, to a desert, to a cliff, etc., all while stumbling and nearly falling off said cliff. He eventually enters the movie’s plot as Sherlock Jr., a great detective, out to solve the case of the missing pearls. The villains in the movie, which include The Rival, have all sorts of deadly traps set for the sleuth, but he defies them all. His assistant, Gillette, also helps him in stalking the criminals.
In one scene, Sherlock Jr. arranges some clothing –a dress, shawl, wig and hat– inside a flat round package and places it upright on the outside windowsill of a building where the criminals are hiding. He enters the place, angers the villains and leaps through the window to escape. When he hits the ground, however, he is slumped over disguised as an old woman. Later Sherlock will leap through an open briefcase held by Gillette at his abdomen. It is not terribly difficult to deduce how this stunt is accomplished, but it is fascinating to see nonetheless. Not only does Sherlock win the battle, but Buster is woken from his dream by The Girl, who has herself solved the real-life mystery of who actually stole the pocket watch. An adorable ending has Buster in the projection booth taking pointers from the lovers on the screen as he embraces and kisses The Girl.
The most interesting and complicated effect used in Sherlock Jr. was after the man enters the movie screen and finds his background changed a dozen times. Buster had to remain absolutely still while the sets were altered around him and the shots were then compiled to make the transitions look instantaneous. The result, for instance, is Buster moving to step down a set of stairs only to step off a garden bench and fall flat. The sets could not have been easy to change either as they were not simple. The desert set up has a sandy hold the man hides in while a train rushes by. Another makes him appear in the middle of the ocean. I cannot imagine the labor required for that few-minute exchange.
Of the Keaton films I’ve seen so far, this hour-long flick is certainly the most fascinating. Movie makers were so creative from the very start of the motion picture industry in finding unique ways to expand the possibilities movies presented. Besides being greatly funny, Sherlock Jr. stands as a prime example of movie history.
Source: Turner Classic Movies: Feature Presentation