Monday, January 23, 2012

Sherlock Jr./The Play House

Sherlock Jr./The Play House
seen @ Landmark Loews Jersey City, Jersey City NJ

The more I see of the work of Buster Keaton, the more amazed I am. I used to only know him as one of the giants of silent screen comedy - one third of the holy trinity of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd. Now, though, I also see him as a remarkable filmmaker who, in some respects, was ahead of his time.

This past Saturday, when we got hit with snow for the first time this winter (not much), the Loews Jersey City showed a Keaton twin bill: Sherlock Jr. and The Play House. The former is Keaton as a film projectionist who fantasizes about being a detective; the latter portrays his misadventures behind the scenes of a stage production. While both of them were funny in their own ways, I found myself more amazed at the technical wizardry employed by the director-star.

In Sherlock, there's a scene where Keaton's character dreams that he's able to step into a movie, and then we follow him through a breathtaking sequence of ever-changing scenery, but Keaton moves from one to the other as if it were all one scene. I can't imagine how he could've pulled it off in 1924, especially since the transitions are almost perfectly seamless. There's also a hair-raising chase in which Keaton is perched on the handlebars of a motorbike with no driver, and he dodges cars in a manner that would require expert timing.

Play House, meanwhile, opens with a different dream scene, in which Keaton plays a variety of characters all at the same time, including the orchestra conductor, members of the orchestra itself, a bunch of stage performers (including, sadly, a couple in blackface), and audience members - male and female. Actors playing double roles within individual scenes has become almost commonplace in films, and to a lesser extent, TV (Eddie Murphy has practically made it a fine art) but this was made in 1921, when film was still relatively new - and again, Keaton made it look quite convincing! 

As I've stated before, The Artist and Hugo have both done much to pay tribute to the silent film era, but there's nothing like actually seeing those films to appreciate the craft at play there. We've become so used to computer-generated effects and RED cameras and digital photography in our films that it's easy to forget that innovation in film is not something restricted to the last twenty years. The effects in these films may seem commonplace today, but the fact that Keaton was able to pull them off during a much earlier period in film history makes them even more amazing to look at.

It was good to be back at the Loews; I hadn't been there in months and I missed it. I went with Reid; it was his first time there and he seemed impressed with the place. He ran into an acquaintance of his while we were there; this old guy named Fred and his lady friend whose name escapes me. The two of them talked a great deal about old movies on the PATH train ride back into the city.


  1. I feel bad that I have not seen any Buster Keaton film. A lot of the folks whose tumblr I follow often feature him so clearly he's beloved. I should watch one of his films soon.

  2. There's much to love and appreciate in his films. I guarantee you'd like them if you gave them a chance.

  3. If you desire to ever watch either again they can both be found online. has a very high quality file of the Playhouse, and Google video has a much lesser quality version of Sherlock Jr.

    Both are immensely reviewable, but of course do not have the same experience as seeing them at Lowes with that organ and the absolutely amazing screen.

  4. Which of course is a big part of the appeal of silent films.