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.
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.
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.
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.