Over sixty years before Woody Allen had his characters pop off the screen and into the film’s reality in The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Buster Keaton had done the reverse. In Sherlock Jr. (1924), the most silent of all silent clowns played a movie projectionist studying to become a detective. Falling asleep in his booth, he dreams himself into the picture, simply walking down the aisle and into the movie-within-a-movie, where he finds he is at the mercy of film space and film time. While he stands still, maintaining his space-time continuity, the “unreal,” cinematic environment surrounding Buster undergoes the editing process. His universe instantaneously shifts from a park to a desert, to an ocean, to a snowdrift, and the character, although maintaining complete control over himself and his actions, is powerless against the filmic montage that changes his physical surroundings.
The scene epitomizes and exaggerates the conditions in which Keaton the filmmaker has placed Buster the character throughout his career. In film after film, he battled immense natural forces and huge mechanical objects which were beyond his control; in film after film, he simply reacted to the environment and the situation as pragmatically as possible, generally in ways that would solve his problems. Again and again, with elegance, poise, and superb command of his body—at once the most malleable and most tensile of physical objects—Buster made impossible physical stunts look not only possible, but effortless. He used no stunt doubles, no tricks, no sleights of camera or editing.
Keaton’s creative ideas as director, his inventiveness and determination, parallel his ideas as a clown. When cinematic wizardry is used, as it is in the montage sequence of Sherlock Jr., it makes Buster’s life harder, not easier. But the sequence is more than just stunting. It is perhaps Keaton’s clearest realization of the cinema’s mechanical basis, his greatest expression of control over the first and ultimate machine of his career—the camera, that unique mechanical object capable of representing and reshaping reality at the same time. Because, as much as Sherlock Jr. pretends to be about something else, it is a film about film. By taking us inside the picture alongside Buster—and constantly telling us we are, indeed, watching illusion unfold—Sherlock Jr. drops its light comedic premise (about a young man’s wish to become a detective and his romantic troubles) and becomes an almost abstract, unwaveringly funny, look at cinema itself.