Commentary Track

Sherlock Jr. (1924)

This week on The Spectator Film Podcast…

Sherlock Jr. (1924) 11.1.19
Featuring: Austin, Maxx

Commentary Track begins at 10:58

— Notes —

  • Sherlock Jr. (1924) — There’s the link to the Youtube version we watched for this episode.
  • My Wonderful World of Slapstick by Buster Keaton — Here’s the link to Buster’s autobiography.
  • Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. Edited by Andrew Horton — This is the link to the wonderful essay collection we referenced during the episode. This is a truly wonderful collection of essays, with the highlights (for me) being the essays by Henry Jenkins and Kathleen Rowe Karlyn. Highly recommended for anyone interested in Buster Keaton’s work. We’ll include some relevant passages below:
    • “‘This Fellow Keaton Seem to Be the Whole Show’: Buster Keaton, Interrupted Performance, and the Vaudeville Aesthetic” by Henry Jenkins
      • “Vaudeville was streamlined, stripped down to those elements most likely to provoke emotion, building toward a ‘wow climax,’ a moment of peak spectacle calculated to ensure a final burst of applause. Performers often directly addressed the audience or crossed beyond the footlights. Making little attempt to preserve the invisible fourth wall that characterized theatrical realism, vaudeville performers foregrounded the process of performance, often in highly reflexive ways, as when the Keatons structured their performance around Buster’s perpetual disruption of his father’s act and included orchestra members and stagehands as part of the performance. Closely related to this reflexive quality in vaudeville performance was what Neil Harris calls the ‘operational aesthetic,’ a fascination with how things work, with the mechanics and technology of showmanship. Vaudeville was not about telling stories; it was about putting on a show and, more than that, it was about each performer’s individual attempt to stop the show and steal the applause. Vaudeville had little use for the trappings of theatrical realism; it was about the spectacular, the fantastic, and the novel. Vaudeville had little use for continuity, consistency, or unity; it was about fragmentation, transformation, and heterogeneity. The incorporation of this vaudeville tradition was what gave silent screen comedy its intensity and absorption; it was also what made the genre’s absorption into the mainstream of classical Hollywood cinema so problematic. Classical cinema, like theatrical realism, was in the business of telling stories, constructing characters, maintaining continuity, consistency, unity, causality and plausibility. Classical cinema, unlike vaudeville, sought to efface the mechanisms of its production, presenting itself as a coherent, self-contained world cut off from the realm of spectator experience” (36).

      • “In fact, Keaton performs two types of tricks in Sherlock Jr. First, there are the tricks he performs for the camera, his pool table tricks, his acrobatic stunts… his motorcycle riding, his quick-change act, and his demonstration of stock comic turns, such as the sticky paper act or slipping on a banana peel. Here Keaton wants us to watch his performance unfold in continuous space and time so that there can be no escaping our awareness of his mastery. Second, there are the tricks Keaton performs with the camera, special effects such as the doubling of Keaton as he slips into dream or the transformation of the cast of Heart of Peals into their real-world counterparts or editing tricks such as the rapid transformation of space as Keaton struggles to get a foothold in the movie world. Here Keaton wants us to recognize that the camera can make us see things that could not possibly occur” (46-47).

    • “The Detective and the Fool: Or, The Mystery of Manhood in Sherlock Jr.” by Kathleen Rowe Karlyn
      • “The use of the detective as a model for the hero signals from the outset that this is a film about clues and about the necessity of reading the world and seemingly trivial details as signs, full of meaning. Among the most important of these concern gender, which the film shows to be a product of social codes, something to be studied and absorbed from the symbolic systems – such as those found in popular fiction and, more dramatically, cinema – that channel our desires and dreams into culturally appropriate directions. Indeed, the film derives much of its comedy from its satire of the infatuation of adolescents with screen idols – whether Mary Pickford, whose poster hangs in the theater lobby, or Rudolph Valentino, the model for the sheik, or John Barrymore, who played Holmes in a film two years before Sherlock Jr. And so the fake mustache suggests not only adult masculinity but its social construction and the fact that gender itself is less a biological condition than a social role, even disguise, that can be acquired by studying the clues and manuals our culture provides” (97-98).

      • “The gendered relationships of the Holmesian universe might more accurately be explained… by the structure of desire Eve Sedgwick has described as homosocial, a term used in history and the social sciences to describe social bonds among people of the same sex…the real play of desire is often not male to female, but male to male. This desire may or may not be overtly sexual but it does involve eros of another kind – the drive to identify with and emulate an admired other… Yet those bonds exist within a logic of sameness rather than difference, a logic that, as Sedgwick explains, functions historically and politically as a kind of ‘social glue’ that fosters the maintenance and transferred of power in patriarchal society. Homosociality encompasses ‘male friendship, mentorship, entitlement, rivalry, and heter – and homosexuality,” attachments that link men together along a continuum of desire between homosocial and homosexual. This structure allows for heirarchy without difference, and it explains the relationships between men so familiar in Western literature and culture, beginning with the Socratic dialogues and including not only Watson’s relationship with Holmes but the boy’s with his fictional ideal” (106-07). [Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire by Eve Sedgwick]

      • “And so the boy’s dream might finally be understood as driven less by heterosexual desire for the girl than by homosocial for a boys-only club where no girls are allowed, a fantasy that combines the heightened drama and excitement of the action adventure film with the comfort of the buddy film. Thus, the dream re-creates a less sinister version of what Pleasure Island offered Pinocchio, or Never-Never Land offered Peter Pan and the Lost Boys, a space where they will never grow up and can always play with Pirates and Indians because Wendy remains in the background to mother them and Tinkerbell is only a tiny sprite” (107-08).

      • “Similarly the Fool, a figure from literary and social history, resides on the margins of society. Yet whereas the detective is deadly earnest, if cynical, about the world he investigates and protects, the Fool mocks it and its pretensions. Whereas the detective soberly defends the foundations of society – including, as we have seen, the primacy of logos over pathos, male over female – the Fool opposes all that the social world deems serious. And while usually male like the classical detective, the Fool is often androgynous or hermaphroditic, encompassing both male and female traits. Like the detective, the Fool exists apart from marriage, the foundation of kinship systems and social order. But unlike the detective, he acts to destabilize rather than uphold the hierarchies on which that order rests” (109-110).


  • Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow (1987) — Here’s the link to the first part of the documentary directed by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill. Recommended to anyone looking to learn more about Buster Keaton and his films. We’ll include the quote from Eleanor, Buster’s wife, below:
    • “The train went out from under him. He rode the water tower down to the track. But he didn’t realize how much force that water had and it threw him against the railroad track with the back of his head. He had a terrible headache. I think they called off shooting for a few days anyway. Then he went back to work, and that was the end of that until about twelve or thirteen years later. He went in for a complete physical: X-rays and the whole lot. And the doctor said, ‘When did you break your neck?’ He said, ‘I never broke my neck.’ He said, ‘Yes, you did break your neck.’ Buster said, ‘Do you think it could have been when I hit my head against the railroad track?’ The doctor said, ‘Sounds reasonable to me.'”

  • Greg Jennings (Broken Leg) scores on the saints — Buster Keaton broke his fuckin’ neck…


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *