Sherlock Jr. (1924)
Sherlock Jr. (1924)

Genre: Adventure and Comedy Running Time: 45 min.

Release Date: May 11th, 1924 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Buster Keaton Actors: Buster Keaton, Kathryn McGuire, Joe Keaton, Erwin Connelly, Ward Crane




ne of the most enjoyable of the auteur’s works, Buster Keaton’s “Sherlock Jr.” is a notably short feature film, clocking in at just over 40 minutes. But it wastes no time and requires not a second more to portray its highly creative, hilarious plot, in black-and-white and without dialogue. Brandishing spectacular special effects, employed for the first time for a 1924 debut, along with perfectly timed comedy and curious imagery, it’s a highly visual masterpiece that ranks among the very best of the era.

A moving picture operator (Buster Keaton) in a small town theater is tasked with collecting trash, which preoccupies him from simultaneously studying to be a crime-solving sleuth. Despite gluing himself to the book “How to be a Detective,” he still manages to find time to woo a pretty girl (Kathryn McGuire), who is sure to be impressed by his investigatory skills. But the projectionist’s rival, the local sheik (Ward Crane), frames the young man for the theft of a pocket watch belonging to the girl’s father – resulting in banishment from her home.

When he returns to his job, the hapless lad falls asleep and dreams of becoming the (second) greatest detective in the world, Sherlock Jr., who must use all of his cunning to catch a pearl thief. Narrowly dodging axes, poison, and explosions, the criminologist swiftly solves the case – save for locating the whereabouts of the valuables. Like the famous use of dual roles in “The Wizard of Oz,” this film has just about every actor doubling as a counterpart character in both the real world and the film world.

Skits include Keaton finding a dollar in the trash, only to have multiple patrons return to collect a lost bill; oodles of slapstick, acrobatics, and choreographed stunts, along with several incredibly dangerous gags (such as running across the top of the train, falling into a moving car, and riding on the handlebars of a motorcycle); and state-of-the-art special effects to visualize the out-of-body experience and seeing through the walls of buildings. Here, he even employs magicians’ stage tricks that require no actual manipulation of film. Though he reworks a few setups from prior short subjects, “Sherlock Jr.” makes many of them appear fresh and more complex.

Being that it arrived in the early 1920s, “Sherlock Jr.” is one of the first features to prominently use contemporarily advanced special effects and editing (many sequences of which are still impressive decades later) to demonstrate his comedic creativity. Jumping into a theater screen, Keaton becomes immersed in various changing sceneries during the movie-within-a-movie, entitled “Hearts and Pearls,” apparently initially being rejected by his interference in the illusionary film world. This morphs into a familiar case of stolen goods – on a grander, more heroic scale. Using this alternate existence, “Sherlock Jr.” beautifully illustrates the theme of reality versus illusion, or more specifically, utilizing fantasy to provide commentary on reality. It is an essential and important part of the evolution of silent comedy, renowned for its technical achievements and careful approach to storytelling, all while showcasing progressive filmmaking possibilities. And, it has its fair share of sentimental motivations, even if Chaplin was cornering the market on pathos.

– Mike Massie

  • 10/10