The Projectionist (Sherlock Jr.)

Created by Jean C. Havez, Joe Mitchell & Clyde Bruckman

Okay, the silent film classic isn’t really a private detective film, not really. But it’s private eye adjacent, and it’s something of a classic, regardless–you won’t regret checking out this little bit of surrealistic slapstick. The great Buster Keaton plays a lowly film projectionist (and janitor) who only fantasizes about being a private detective–but not just any private detective.

Nope, his idol is none other than Sherlock Holmes. Okay, so by 1924, the year the film came out, the shamus game was already hardening up in these here United States, in the pages of The Black Mask.

But no matter–what really matters is that THE PROJECTIONIST (as he’s billed in the credits) is one of the first of those “beautiful dreamers;” a working class schlub who fantasizes about being the Great Detective, to the point that he’s studying to be one.

But when his romantic rival, a true cad, frames him for stealing his would-be girlfriend’s father’s pocket watch, he pretty much blows it, and beats a cowardly retreat back to the theatre to work.

Heartbroken (presumably–it’s hard to tell with Keaton), he heads to the projecting booth and starts the next film, and is soon lost in a dream, imagining himself as the world famous “crime-crushing criminologist” at last–on the screen. And thus begins one of the great dream sequences of early cinema. Does Keaton break the fourth wall? Heck, yeah–he pulverizes it!  The Great Stone Face is now the Great Detective (in a tux, no less) that he always wanted to be, hot on the trail of some missing jewels, working the case and scoffing at danger, much to the dismay of the treacherous thieves who figure their only hope is to kill him before he cracks the case. Hilarity–and some mind-blowing stunts, gimmicks and a frantic chase involving boats, trains and automobiles–ensue, as the Projectionist proves to be a wily and cunning adversary, deftly sidestepping assorted attacks (Poison! Exploding billiard balls!), in a case that at times oddly parallels his real-life dilemma. He also displays some mad pool skills.

In “reel” life, the Projectionist triumphs. In “real” life, however, it’s his would-be girlfriend who displays the real deductive chops, and clears her true love’s name.

And they live happily ever after.

No, really.

UNDER OATH

  • “You could make a highlight reel of classic silent comedy moments using only Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr., and no one could justly complain. In the 91 years since Keaton made his love letter to cinema, no one has crafted a better examination of the relationship between the audience and the silver screen. Keaton plays a movie theater projectionist… who dreams he walks into a movie screen and becomes a suave hero—the perfect metaphor for the appeal of the movies.”
    — Jeremy Mathews (October 18, 2021, Paste)
  • “… perhaps the most innovative comedy of the entire silent era and it retains a formidable reputation among Keaton’s body of work… one of the earliest films about film, Sherlock Jr. blurs distinctions between real life and the dream world of cinema…”
    — 366 Weird Movies (April 2013)

FILMS

  • SHERLOCK, JR.  Buy the DVD Watch it now!
    (1924, Buster Keaton Productions)
    Silent
    Black & white
    45 minutes
    Written by Jean C. Havez, Joe Mitchell & Clyde Bruckman
    Directed by Buster Keaton
    Starring Buster Keaton as THE PROJECTIONIST
    Also starring Kathryn McGuire, Joe Keaton, Erwin Connelly, Ward Crane. 

FURTHER INVESTIGATION

Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.

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