Realizing that although I’d seen many, many movies in my life, I still hadn’t seen enough, I recently created a list of the 500 Best Movies I’ve Never Seen. As I attempt to watch them all, I will write about my experiences seeing classics (and some not-so-classics) for the first time. Warning: these are spoiler-ridden posts, as the films are all past their time in theaters (some, long, long past). If you haven’t seen the film I recommend you first see it and then read. If it’s on the list it’s probably worth seeing.
Buster Keaton’s 1924 film, Sherlock, Jr., is one of the most classic of classics. It treated audiences to some of the first special effects in cinema, creating a film full of fantasy but also full of Keaton’s trademark witty and physical humor. The silent film is a film on film, and also a film within a film, a look at how we as an audience view cinema and what that cinema really means.
The plot centers on Keaton’s amateur detective/film projector operator protagonist. Everything is going okay for our hero, until his love’s father loses his watch. It turns out it was stolen by a villain, but Keaton is framed. Kicked out of her house he heads back to work, where, uncannily, the movie he is projecting carries the exact same plot, only with slightly more glitz and glamour. When he falls asleep in the projection room, he dreams he and his acquaintances are apart of the movie he is watching, and that is where the magic and fantasy begins to happen.
The film has the ability to evoke wonder and amazement in even a modern audience because it relies not on the special effects it pioneered but on the idea that all movies are inherently magical. And in a way, every movie is magical, no matter how real its subject matter. The larger-than-life images that cover the screen, the stories that speak to the audience, the images that fly across our line of sight, it’s all magic, even if there are no wizards or wands involved. Keaton understands this and when his character becomes a part of a movie, the magic of the movies becomes the key to the story.
In this dream film, the fourth wall is literally absent from buildings, so the audience can see what’s going on inside and outside at the same time. One moment, a man is standing in a doorway, and another moment, Keaton jumps right through him. A game of pool is played and the 13-ball is never, ever hit. Doors are mirrors and mirrors are doors. Yes, Keaton’s ghost emerges from his body and picks up a ghost hat, an impressive feat for 1924, but that is simply a part of the greater fantasy. Keaton almost doesn’t need the special effects; the magic of the film is carried on the backs of slide of hand and old-fashioned stunts.
In the end, the frame story that makes up most of Sherlock, Jr. isn’t that important. The title is deceiving; the movie isn’t about a mystery, but about movies themselves. When Keaton finally wakes up he looks not to himself for what to do, but to the movie that is still magically flickering across the giant screen. He wants to preserve that magic, to keep it going in his real world. But in the real world, you can’t just kiss and then cut to a scene years later. And he finally learns that life isn’t really like the movies. It’s just not quite as magical.