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Hit Me With Your Best Shot: "Sherlock Jr"

This week's "Best Shot" selection iss Buster Keaton's Sherlock Jr. (1924), a 44 minute silent comedy. Silent comedies were often so swoony with romantic plots that I always want to call them melodramedies or maybe romantic slapsticomedy. Rom-Slapstick? The film opens with a title card that warns us against multi-tasking. 

There is an old proverb which says: Don't try to do two things at once and expect to do justice to both."

That's an awfully funny thing to warn us against in a Buster Keaton film. The innovative entertainer was equal parts director, actor, star, stuntman and screenwriter. And he excelled at all of them.

The movie projectionist hero of Sherlock Jr isn't the great detective he'd like to imagine himself to be -- the crime at the heart of the movie has to be solved by another -- but that's what the movies are for, providing him with sweet escape until real life does come to rescue him. In a way, Sherlock Jr, is like the inverse of Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), in that our movie lover hero enters the screen to fantasize about being his idol rather than a screen idol entering the real world for the heroine who fantasizes. 

It's impossible to imagine the craft we've lost nowadays given that everything is computerized and visual effects are easier than ever. I have no idea how Buster enters and exits the movie screen with such panache and believability but for perhaps a trick of lighting. And even more impressive is the elaborate stunt sequences. Though this is "Best Shot" rather than "Best Setpiece" old movies don't differentiate between the two as much since there are so fewer cuts. So for my Best Shot I had to select the sequence / shot that made me laugh the hardest, even though out of context it's completely terrifying:

The Projectionist has been riding on the handlebars of his friends bike and has yet to realize that his friend has long since been knocked off. After a series of hilariously close encounters and dangerous obstacles besetting a mostly obviously hero, we get a title card that can't possibly be actual dialogue (given that no other characters are in the frame) so I like to think of it as a projection of what we the audience are feeling.

I thought you'd never make it."

Immediately after that, Buster goes careening towards a moving train that never once looks like a rear projection and it's only then that he himself becomes terrified and covers his eyes. His long delayed terror is part of the joke as is the covering of his eyes (so heroic!) and the train is the coup de grâce. After the narrow miss (Did he really do this? If so he was certifiable!) he keeps on covering his eyes and finally realizes that no one is controlling the bike. A beautiful extended joke and a thrilling bit of cinema.

And the Projectionist is still not out of the woods because Buster Keaton never rests; the multi-hyphenate multi-tasking genius is too busy doing everything at once... and doing justice to all of them.

More 'Best Shot' entries for your reading pleasure. Support movie-loving blogs that care about movies beyond their opening weekends!

Coco Hits NY proves its tough to escape the debate of Chaplin vs. Keaton
The Family Berzurcher details why Keaton is so often compared to Jacques Tati and the heart and brains behind the gags
The Entertainment Junkie "it's a miracle Keaton's characters make it to the end of the films"
Awww, the Movies the black and white rose of ... sherlock?
Film Actually 'low key by today's standards' but it has everything: chase scenes, explosions, stunts, and more...

Antagony & Ecstasy once wrote about this in his film school days!
Okinawa Assault would anyone insure Keaton today with his daredevil stunts?
Pussy Goes Grrr  "Its slim 44 minutes lampoon the genre conventions of romance, melodrama, and detective fiction" 
Amiresque on Keaton's perfect movie face 
Against the Hype a choreographic delight... 
Encore's World Escapism! 
Armchair Audience it's hard to capture a best shot in this fast moving Keaton vehicle 

Next week on "Best Shot":
SINGIN' IN THE RAIN (1952) on the cusp of Gene Kelly's Centennial Week. It'll be a biggie so please join us Wednesday night, August 15th and select your favorite shot in the film many believe is the greatest musical of all time.

We're celebrating Gene Kelly from now through the end of August. 100th anniversaries for all time favorite movie stars don't come around so often, you know, so we Gotta Dance! Gotta Dance! Gottttaaaa Dannnccce! ♫

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Reader Comments (10)

Great posts everyone.

Singin' In The Rain is gonna be so hard for me. I'm gonna end up enjoying it so much and forget that I'm supposed to be picking a best shot! Love that movie.

August 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSquasher88

Squasher -- i'm worried about the same thing. How to pay attention when all you feel is bliss?

August 9, 2012 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Your best shot does look like something out of a horror movie, or at the very least a thriller. And yet the entire scene plays out so brilliantly comedic even as we’re wondering if (or at least how) he’ll manage to get out of that scrape.

(Oddly, as I much as I adore SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, I don’t have overwhelming love for Kelly.)

August 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAndrewK.

About "I thought you'd never make it": I assumed that the Projectionist was addressing the driver he hasn't realized is no longer there.

Singin' in the Rain: picking a best shot will be impossible. Honestly. One of the most impeccably directed movies in existence.

August 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterColin

I love Sherlock, Jr. SO MUCH. It's still so fresh, and so much more inventive than, well, pretty much any comedy since. How Keaton ever did all those stunts is a mystery, but boy am I glad he did. I don't think I could even choose a favorite shot from this. My first inclination was the trick shot where the movie keeps changing around him, because it's so seamlessly edited and perfectly timed and encapsulates everything I love about the movie. But looking at everyone else's picks, I couldn't help but marvel (yet again) at how completely fucking perfect nearly every composition in this film is. I'm not sure if it's a perfect 44 minutes, but it's DAMN close.

I don't even have to watch Singin' In The Rain (my #1 film of all time) again to know exactly what its best shot is.

August 9, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

Geez, best shot in Singin' In The Rain? Hmmm, Gene Kelly's face...or Gene Kelly's butt? ;-)

August 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Alamitos Beach

Andrew K...

I was a professional dancer in the 50's and 60's and I really agree with you ... Singing in the Rain was fantastic, but I have never been a Kelly fan as a dancer ( choreographer, yes ... but not just a dancer.)

I actually had 2 other favorites who were strictly dancers ... Donald O'Connor and Gene Nelson .. unbeatable in my book.

August 9, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterrick

Boy, that Gene Kelly was a real fox.

August 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTroy H.

Nathaniel, I had a great time writing for this! I'll certainly be joining in regularly. Before reading this, I didn't even consider the incredible reversal happening in PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO, one of my absolute top Woody picks. Thanks for the opportunity. It's a joy reading your stuff, too.

August 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMatt Zurcher

Another really interesting group of choices. I'm always surprised when watching a Buster Keaton movie to find myself suddenly laughing helplessly. There's something about him that just circumvents the jaded critical part of my mind.

And those breathtaking stunts! I remember reading that his parents were in vaudeville and for their juggling act, one of the things they juggled and threw around on stage was the baby. Maybe that made Buster think that physical danger was a kind of normality - he was certainly amazingly adept at it.

August 11, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteradri
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