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The Magical World of Sherlock Jr.

Between the years 1920 and 1923 Buster Keaton managed to create 19 short films. His short films are characterized with comic situations that are interconnected with movement and imagery, without putting any weight on the dramatic effect. The comedy and the metaphoric background lie in the imagery, not in the narrative. Thus, the aesthetic aspect is the one that offers a background for a metaphor that is the most important aspect of transferring the meaning. However, the metaphor in Buster Keaton’s works has been frequently overlooked by film critics. Nevertheless, the concept of the metaphor is inseparable from Buster Keaton’s films as well as his overall aesthetic (Coëgnarts and Kravanja 134).

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In Buster Keaton’s short films, the narrative component is even more negligible than in his feature films. Sherlock Jr. (1924) is a feature film, a vaudeville that does have a gripping and humorous narrative – a young and poor projectionist decides to solve a crime of the stolen watch that belonged to the father of the girl he was in love with. The sequence in the film that shows how the main character’s dream in which he forces himself into a movie screen is not a simple gag, but a great metaphor for the connection between dreams and reality (Access Cinema 2).

In his film, Keaton also was keen on reproducing some illusions that he had studied for a long time on the vaudeville circuit: “Some of these tricks I knew from the stage. I got that batch of stuff together, but I couldn’t do it and tell a legitimate story because there are illusions, some of them are clown gags, some Houdini, some Shung Li Fou. It’s got to come in a dream” (qtd. in Horton 69).

A Dream within a Dream

Sherlock Jr. is a magnificent feature film that has many allusions to dreams and magic. Thus, the scene where the boy falls asleep on the film projector is metaphoric for the “imposition of his own unconscious fantasies upon the preternaturally receptive plot of the film actually being shown to the theater audience” (Horton 73).

Then, the film shows a sequence of transformations that the boy sees in the dream. The first reincarnation shows a villain and the heroine who turn into the sheik and the girl who then walk up the stairs. This transformation is parallel with the scene in the girl’s house, where the girl and the boy walk up the stairs. The second transformation shows how the heroine’s father turns into the girl’s father. Other heroes that surround the boy also appear in the reincarnation, for instance, the owner of the theater turns into Sherlock’s assistant.

Moreover, other recognizable elements of the first scene appear again in the film shown on screen. For example, the father finds out that the pearls are stolen in the same way he announces the disappearance of the watch. In addition, there is a scene where the sheik secretly slips the pearls to the butler the same way he slipped the pawn ticket to the boy at the beginning of the film. A great number of parallels between the reality and the film evidently shows that the dream about the film the boy sees is based on the events in his life. The most important aspect of these parallels is the manner in which the beginning of dream sets a tone for the rest of the dream.

The different scenes in the dream can be understood as visual metaphors of the situation in which the main character found himself. Overall, the episode with shifting scenes shows the helplessness of the boy both in real and in the dream world. The fade to black that ends the scene signifies that the main character is as separated from the dream world as he is separated from the real one (Horton 75).

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Given the narrative, Sherlock Jr. should be complicated in terms of perception, yet the transition between the magical scenes is almost unnoticeable. If the narrative of the dream scene were set in reality and not in the movie, some of the gags that appeared in the sequence would seem implausible. In his book Fifty Key American Films John White argues, “although ambiguous and unconventional the creation of a film within Buster’s dream, within the film it does not threaten the internal logic of Sherlock Jr’s fictional world, it even serves to give it sense” (White and Haenni 48).

By staging the narrative in the world of the dream that the main character sees, Buster Keaton was able to broaden the cinematic boundaries in order to deepen the comedic effect as well as to set him apart from other stereotypical comedic stunts done at that time.

The Main Character as a Magician

The notion of magic has a large number of various connotation that are captured in Sherlock Jr. For example, magic can have a meaning of an escape from a restraint. Sherlock is able to free himself from a series of traps the same way the boy escaped from the boxcar. Moreover, magic can be a metaphor for a transformation, as in the scene where the magician transforms roses into a dove. Magic is also indicative of a dream like discussed above; the boy being rejected from the movie screen is parallel with his banishment from the girl’s house.

The scenes that have any allusions to magic are probably the most symbolic devices Buster Keaton uses in Sherlock Jr. Magic is parallel with inadaptability of the main character that is forced in the most unexplainable and the most hyperbolic situations imagined (Caroll 49).

There is no doubt that the feature film is filled with many magical moments that have either a comedic or a metaphoric effect. The world in which the characters live is magical, as it balances on the edge of reality and dream (the film itself and the film-within-a-film). The main purpose of the characters that live in the magical world is fulfilling the wishes, for example, the boy wanted to be with the girl he loved and did everything in his power, including turning into a detective, to be with her. The main character becomes a ‘machine’ that is programmed to fulfilling his wishes.

The Chase

The chase sequence that concludes the feature film became an iconic and recognizable episode. Moreover, this scene illustrates how similar scenes in the short films shot by Keaton inspired his expanded feature films. The moments that show how the main character balances on the motorcycle’s handlebars, barely avoiding a cliff or moving train are able to illustrate precise editing done by Keaton (Neibaur and Niemi 236).

The sequence starts with the main character being chased by a group of gang members. A police officer stops Sherlock to ask about what was going on when it turned out that the police officer was the main character’s assistant Gillette wearing a faux mustache. Then, Sherlock is able to quickly hop on a motorbike and head to the place where the main heroine was trapped. In a rush, Gillette falls from the motorbike when hitting a pothole, while Sherlock has to balance on the handlebars.

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The physicality of Buster Keaton is beyond words. There is no doubt that he learned how to balance on the handlebars and shot the most of the sequence on the street (Nitrateglow). The funniest scene in the whole sequence is the moment when the character realizes that his assistant was long gone. Sherlock looks into the camera with an expression of indignation on his face, as though the viewers should have mentioned that he was in big trouble.

Again, there are allusions to magic that comes from the spontaneity of the scenes. There is also an illusionist trick when the boy jumps into his friend’s stomach. However, this spontaneity is just perceived, as the intricate scene required a very strict plan so that every single detail goes the way it should.


“Keaton’s third feature under his own steam is an incredible technical accomplishment, but also an almost Pirandellian exploration of the nature of cinematic reality.” (Access Cinema 2) In Sherlock Jr. Buster Keaton evoked a freedom that was able to turn reality into a dream and vice versa, dissolving the borders between the real world and the world of dreams. The viewer is definitely confused by the mix of dream and real event that she or he becomes “wonderfully boggled, stunned by an illusion that seems, impossibly and simultaneously, both real and dream” (qtd. in Horton 86). Sherlock Jr. brought together two phenomena that appeared near the turn of the century: cinema and the detective alter ego of the main character.

The main character tends to find himself in a variety of comedic situations that clearly can double up as great metaphors. However, unlike other characters in silent films, the main hero in Sherlock Jr. never asked for empathy for the hilarious situation he is in, instead, he shows the viewers that he is able to get out of any complicated situation by himself. Of course, the troubles create a comedic effect, and the film becomes a hilarious spectacle filled with gags that appear one after another. The magnificent stunts surprise the viewers while the philosophical meaning of the story leaves everyone thinking.

To conclude, Sherlock Jr. is a marvelous and imaginative feature film directed by the genius Buster Keaton. Viewers are presented with a commentary that has some social as well as philosophical background, while at the same time appearing surrealistic and comedic. It considers the notions of reality and dream that intertwine and interchange each other. Many state that is very easy to see Buster Keaton as a funny and imaginative man, while it is hard to appreciate his artistic side. Sherlock Jr. rejects this thought completely. The film offers the viewers a plot with a deep meaning and a visual image executed with an artistic approach.

Works Cited

Access Cinema. Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr. n.d. Web.

Caroll, Noel. Comedy Incarnate: Buster Keaton, Physical Humor and Bodily Coping, Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. Print.

Coëgnarts, Maarten, and Peter Kravanja. “Metaphors in Buster Keaton’s Short Films.” Image & Narrative 13:2 (2012): 133-146. Print.

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Horton, Andrew. Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr., Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Print.

Neibaur, James, and Terri Niemi. Buster Keaton’s Silent Shorts 1920-1923, Plymouth, UK: Scarecrow Press Inc., 2013. Print.

Nitrateglow 2015, “See You in the Fall Blogathon: The motorcycle chase in Sherlock Jr. (dir. Buster Keaton, 1924)”. Nitrateglow. Web.

White, John, and Sabine Haenni. Fifty Key American Films, London, UK: Routeledge, 2009. Print.

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