Buster Keaton: Last Action Hero

Buster Keaton in a movie inside a movie. Image:

Buster Keaton fights crime in a movie inside a movie. Image: Walker Art Center

In the summer of 1993, Columbia Pictures released a big-budget film about a boy who is transported inside a movie to help the hero fight crime. The movie was Last Action Hero, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.

It was an $85 million failure.

Other directors have tried meta themes of movie characters being pulled into – or out of – movies within movies (e.g. Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo). However, we think one of cinema’s earliest action stars did it best, even though the film was considered a disappointment upon its release.

Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. (1924) was a money-maker, but audiences and critics weren’t over-the-moon ecstatic about it.

Variety panned it. “This Buster Keaton feature length comedy is about as unfunny as a hospital operating room,” writes a grumpy reviewer in the May 28, 1924 issue. “[I]t’s a flop, and the week’s box office receipts at the Rialto will undoubtedly prove that to be the case.”

It’s too bad. Sherlock Jr. is a funny, clever film that never stops to catch its breath – you know, genuine Action Hero stuff.

Keaton is unrecognizable in this disguise! Image:
Keaton is unrecognizable in this disguise! Image: Generation Film

Just as Last Action Hero is a movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger about a movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sherlock Jr. is a movie starring Buster Keaton about a movie starring Buster Keaton.

Keaton plays a bored movie theatre projectionist who longs to be a detective, specifically “the crime-crushing criminologist, Sherlock Jr.” He couldn’t care less about the films he shows; he’d rather study his detective materials.

His detecting savoir-faire is soon tested when smarmy Ward Crane steals a prized watch and frames Keaton for the robbery. Keaton is desperate to obtain evidence to prove Crane’s guilt, but the culprit is one slippery character.

The solution comes to Keaton when he falls asleep at work in the projection booth. (How ironic that movie star Keaton plays a man who is so uninterested in movies, he falls asleep!)

In a neat bit of trick photography, Buster’s subconscious steps outside of Sleeping Buster, and walks right into the film running on the screen. Even the grumpy Variety reviewer had to admire this scene. “There is one piece of business…that is clever,” writes the reviewer. “The rest is bunk.”

Subconscious Buster then becomes the Action Hero of the movie within the movie.

Buster Keaton in 1924s Sherlock Jr
Subconscious Buster decides to strike out on his own. Image: FinalBug

The thing is, Keaton isn’t usually thought of as an Action Movie Hero, like Jackie Chan, Denzel Washington or Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Perhaps we should change that perception. Just look at what he does in Sherlock Jr.: He runs on top of moving trains, dives through windows, and famously rides on the handlebars of a driverless motorcycle. His dexterity is breathtaking.

He is, as Roger Ebert writes, a man of courage:

Because he was funny, because he wore that porkpie hat, Keaton’s physical skills are often undervalued. We hear about the stunts of Douglas Fairbanks Sr., but no silent star did more dangerous stunts than Buster Keaton.

For this reason, we’re tempted to compare him to Schwarzenegger in Last Action Hero. Both films employ film-within-film storytelling, jaw-dropping stunts, and a crucial character that is a movie projectionist. Also, both films found greater admiration by new audiences well after their initial release.

We can see you’re mildly horrified by this comparison. Maybe we shouldn’t compare the two; it really isn’t fair. After all, Schwarzenegger is no Keaton.

If you haven’t seen Sherlock, Jr. we entreat you to do so. As crazy as it sounds, it makes an intriguing double feature with Last Action Hero.

Sherlock Jr: starring Buster Keaton, Kathryn McGuire, Joe Keaton. Directed by Buster Keaton. Written by Clyde Bruckman, Jean Havez, Joseph Mitchell. Buster Keaton Productions, 1924, B&W, 45 mins.

This post is part of the Buster Keaton Blogathon hosted by Silent-ology. Click HERE to see all the fab entries.





  1. Luckily for Buster, the film wasn’t a financial flop, but it did make the least amount of box office of his independent feature films. Such a shame, as this movie is so creative and exciting. It made me enamored of Buster Keaton; he stole my heart. Hard to imagine Sherlock Jr is over ninety years old!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Isn’t Buster K. adorable in this film? I love ether scene where he and Kathryn McGuire are sitting on the couch, and he holds her hand.

      It is hard to imagine this film is over 90 years old, like you said. It’s every bit as thrilling now as it was then!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. To my shame, I haven’t seen Sherlock Jr., a lack on my part that I must make an effort to correct Real Soon Now, especially after reading your great writeup here.

    Like briandanacamp, I rate Last Action Hero highly, and expressed this feeling in my (necessarily short) entry on the movie in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am shocked – SHOCKED! – to hear that you haven’t seen Sherlock Jr. I can’t see how a person would not enjoy it.

      I really liked Last Action Hero. I don’t think it deserves the bad rep that it has, I thought the idea of Arnold playing Arnold was clever, and such a lot of fun. My fave is the scene at the movie premiere with both movie Arnold and “real” Arnold.


  3. This is a great appreciation of Keaton’s work. Speaking of action hero credentials, this was also the movie where he broke his neck during a stunt and kept working; he didn’t even realize it had broken until a doctor noticed the healed fracture on an x-ray years later!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wow. This may be the only time I ever write this: I want to see that Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. You make an interesting argument. “There is one piece of business…that is clever,” Sheesh. I thought there were lots of pieces of business that were genius.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha ha! I know what you mean about wanting to see An Arnold Schwarzenegger film! But you really must make an exception for this one. It’s not a perfect film, but the premise is clever and it is tons o’ fun.

      As for the Variety review of Sherlock Jr., what was WITH that reviewer?! Like you said, there are lots of great things about this film.


  5. Good post! 🙂

    Sherlock Jr is a classic and features some of Buster’s more inventive gags which must have gone over the heads of those snobby critics in 1924.

    I’ve always thought it was remarkable that in silent cinema the big dangerous stunts appeared in comedy films whereas the “action” flicks were limited to fast driving and gunfights. I guess Fairbanks was paying more attention to the comedians than the action directors! 😛

    And just to complete your train of thought, lest we forget that Sherlock Jr featured the water tower stunt in which that powerful blast of water actually broke Buster’s neck, something he didn’t discover until the mid 30’s! 😮

    Viva Buster! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can’t imagine breaking my neck and not knowing it. Just shows the kind of pain tolerance Buster Keaton must’ve had – not to mention how physically fit he was.

      You make a good point about comedies having the most dangerous stunts, while “action” films are comparatively tame.

      As for those 1924 critics, I think they were spoiled with all the great cinema. It would be interesting to see what some of those critics would say about some of the films being produced today…

      Liked by 1 person

      • It is incredible about Buster’s neck but the again, you’d be amazed at the amount of wrestlers who complain of back pain or stiffness and find they’ve broken their necks – it’s often an adrenaline rush thing masking the initial pain.

        Critics can be a funny lot and like the audiences, can often be resistant to change but also complain about people doing the same thing. Can’t please the buggers! 😛

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Yeah, I sometimes wonder if some of those bad reviews were written because the critics happened to be in a bad mood when they were a the theater, lol! I’m sure crazier things have happened.

    Not too long ago me and some fellow fans were discussing which film of Buster’s would be considered his masterpiece if he had never made The General. Sherlock Jr. won by a landslide!

    Thanks for contributing this great essay to our blogathon. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I wonder about that, too. Sometimes it seems like critics make a living out of being curmudgeonly. (I’m looking at you, Bosley Crowther.)

      Yay for Sherlock Jr! Yes, I would vote for it to be Keaton’s masterpiece if The General had not been made.

      Thanks for organizing and hosting this blogathon. I’ve only read a few entries so far, but have loved each one.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Buster’s stunt skills are definitely on display in “Sherlock, Jr.” The motorcycle ride is my favorite part. For a long time I didn’t even realize the shot in front of the train was filmed in reverse. This is a real testament to his skills as an actor, because it’s not easy to “act” backwards and make it look natural when the film is projected. Especially in such a long, continuous shot. I also wonder if the length of the movie (45 mins.) may have affected its box office. Maybe folks thought they wanted more for the price of admission.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I didn’t realize the front of the train was filmed in reverse, either! Man, that guy was pure genius!

      The length of the movie was originally longer, but Buster himself trimmed it down to give it a faster pace.

      Thanks for dropping by!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I always find it amazing that some great films did poorly when they opened in theaters. I really believe they are ahead of their time, and could only be truly appreciated by a more mature audience, decades later. This probably isn’t the case of Last Action Hero, but it is the case of Bringing Up Baby and Sherlock Jr.
    Thanks for the kind comment!


    • Believe it or not, Last Action Hero is starting to get new admiration these days. I watched it the other day for the first time and enjoyed it way more than I thought I would. You’re right about certain films, though, that aren’t appreciated at the time but gain a much more admiring audience later.


  9. You win the Negative Capability Award for this event—I’m pretty sure nobody else has ever compared BK with AS. And it will always be a mystery that Sherlock Jr. was so little loved in its day. I haven’t seen the Variety review…is that the one where the guy says the movie is unoriginal? What the—? All Keaton’s films are worthwhile but this one just blew the top of my head off when I first saw it many years ago. Pretty sure this was before Purple Rose… Buster was surreal before the French invented the term. It makes so much sense for Buster to make porous the membrane between real life and the screen, somehow. Somebody suggested this film as a good gateway for people new to silents. I think it’s a great movie for *everybody.”


    • Thanks for the Negative Capability Award! I was a bit nervous re: backlash to compare Arnold to Buster, but it was such fun.

      As for those 1924 reviewers (the dullards), I think they were too spoiled by all that great cinema. I like what you said about Buster ‘ porous membrane between life and the screen. That’s an excellent way of putting it.

      Looking forward to your blogathon this coming weekend!


  10. My knowledge of silent films is woefully inadequate, Ruth, although I do know a little about Buster Keaton. (I’ll never forget him stomping around “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”.) It is amazing that he performed most, if not all, of his stunts. No green screen for him! I’ve already pinned this movie. It’ll be nice to see the old pro at work.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. This was my first Buster film, and will always have a special place in my heart. The aesthetics, technical surrealism, and stunts of Sherlock Jr. have the same awe-inspiring effect on me every time I watch it. The “Last Action Hero” comparison gives it an interesting scope!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, this is a remarkable film in every way. It was fresh in my mind when I watched Last Action Hero, and every 10 minutes I was saying – out loud – “Hey, wait a minute! Buster already did this. And did it better.” My poor, tolerant husband just patted me on the shoulder and said kindly, “You should go write this down.”

      Liked by 1 person

  12. “How ironic that movie star Keaton plays a man who is so uninterested in movies, he falls asleep!” I just loved that line and it’s so true!! His little fellow can’t wait to be something different. Keaton is such a master.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Since I haven’t seen too many silent movies (I think only 1), it sounds like this one would be good to watch. I love your comparison to the Last Action Hero. It was great when you said Scharzenegger is no Keaton! 🙂 I can’t believe someone would not know their neck was broken either. He sure must have a high tolerance for pain or he’s just used to hurting all the time from the stunts or I’m just a complete wimp which is true. But really, not know your neck is broken? Amazing! Thanks for a fun post, Ruth!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I really enjoyed reading this piece! Despite knowing of course that Keaton is a physical comedian, I never thought of him as an action star before but it makes so much sense the way you present it here. He really was quite an athlete and his stunts have always impressed me so much. Great piece!

    Liked by 1 person

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