Breaking the Fourth Wall with Buster Keaton

Although it took some time for younger generations to rediscover his greatness, Buster Keaton’s place in the silent film firmament has been firmly established and for good reason. We’ve already discussed his ability to use audience feedback to improve his films, and how a new generation discovered him in TV commercials late in his life. But during his heyday, Keaton transcended the silent comedy world in a way that no one, including Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, could.

Ask a Keaton fan which film they think is his masterpiece and you’re likely to get an answer like “The General” or “The Navigator.” Both are excellent showcases of his humor, his ability as a director and his incredible ability for stunt work, but no feature film showcases Keaton’s incredible craftsmanship as a filmmaker quite like “Sherlock Jr.” The story is simple enough, Keaton and his rival vie for the affections of the beautiful Kathryn McGuire. His chances are seemingly ruined when the rival frames him for the robbery of McGuire’s father’s pocketwatch, but Keaton, entranced by detective stories, decides to discover the truth and clear his name.

Although the story itself is enjoyable and solid, it’s the dream sequence that sets it apart. Although Keaton’s character is a detective at heart, he’s a projectionist by trade and enthralled with the world of film. So much so, that when he falls asleep in the theater, he can’t help but intervene and get into the film itself. Not only is the sequence hilarious, it’s also incredible from a filmmaking standpoint, as the in-camera effects seamlessly transition Keaton from one perilous scene to the next. Check out the entire sequence below to see what I mean.

Look familiar? You may have seen a similar scenario in a little film called “The Purple Rose of Cairo” by Woody Allen, wherein Jeff Daniels steps through the film into the real world, much to his co-stars’ frustration.

Want to get better acquainted Buster? Watch all of “Sherlock Jr.” (for free) here or DVR it when it airs on TCM this Sunday.

If you’re lucky enough to be in the Windy City this weekend, you can also head over to the Music Box Theatre and catch one of Keaton’s last masterpieces, “The Cameraman” on the big screen. And be sure to check out our collection of tradepapers advertising “Sherlock Jr” on our Pinterest page.

Want to dive deeper into the world of silent film? Keep up with my posts over on Curtains or on Chicago Nitrate.