Several years ago, my wife and I were invited to a preview screening of a newly restored print of Lawrence of Arabia. And about 20 minutes into the movie, my wife whispered to me, in a tone that neatly balanced amazement and embarrassment: “I just realized – I’ve never seen this movie before.” And I smiled, but I did not laugh, because I knew exactly how she felt.
Indeed, on numerous occasions before and since that screening, I’ve confidently sat down to savor some cinematic classic, absolutely certain that I’ve seen it many times before but determined to find things in it that I never previously noticed or fully appreciated. And, yes, usually all it takes is a few minutes – sometimes, very few minutes – for that smug smile to vanish from my face, and a sinking feeling to develop in my stomach, as I realize: Uh-oh.
The thing is, there are some movies that loom so large in our pop culture, that are so frequently excerpted in film-clip accumulations prepared for biographical and historical documentaries, that are referenced verbally and visually so ubiquitously in both textbooks and magazine features, that have been the subject of reverent homage and mocking parody in so many venues for so many years – that, even if you’ve never seen them, you may not only assume, you may be absolutely convinced that you have.
Just ask yourself, and then ask your friends: Have you ever really, actually seen all of the original Frankenstein with Boris Karloff? Or the original Dracula with Bela Lugosi? How about The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari? Or Edwin S. Hart’s The Great Train Robbery? The Public Enemy? Citizen Kane? The 1933 version of King Kong?
Don’t feel ashamed: The whole point of my ongoing Take 59 project is to plug up some gaps in my own cinematic experiences. But I have to admit: I originally thought I knew precisely what movies would qualify as first-time experiences for me during this year-long marathon. That was before I decided to watch a DVD of Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr. My intent was to make sure that the disc, a much-appreciated hand-me-down from a colleague, was in tip-top shape before showing it to my students at University of Houston and Houston Community College. About five minutes into my viewing, however: Uh-oh.
For the benefit of those who tuned in late: From 1920 to 1928, as writer-director-star with his own company, Buster Keaton made 19 short films and 10 features, including such silent masterpieces as The Navigator (1924), Seven Chances (1925), The General (1927), Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), The Cameraman (1928) and others that I've actually seen. In almost all of these films, he appears as a calmly stoic young man who exhibits amazing physical dexterity in his naively single-minded but ultimately successful struggles to overcome intractable machines (a locomotive, an ocean liner) or forces of nature (a waterfall, a rockslide). As I have noted elsewhere, Charlie Chaplin, Keaton's celebrated contemporary during the golden age of silent movie comedy, might have been driven batty by his dehumanizing drudgery on a high-speed assembly line in Modern Times -- but Keaton usually remained steadfast in his determination to impose control over troublesome technology through sheer force of will.
Sherlock, Jr. is Keaton’s jauntily surrealistic 1924 masterwork about a movie projectionist who yearns to become a dashing detective, and who daydreams of literally entering a movie that's screening at his theater – and, of course, doing derring-do there as the title hero – after a rival frames him for the theft of his girlfriend’s father’s watch. For decades, I’ve seen clips of the film’s still-astonishing set piece, a sequence that shows the projectionist walking into the movie frame, interacting with other characters, and then being thoroughly discombobulated as he’s tossed from location to another -- from an African vista (where lions prowl) to a rugged mountain terrain to a snow-blanketed winterscape and on and on – thanks to editing that changes everything in the frame but him. Other directors have borrowed the basic gimmick – mostly notably, Woody Allen in The Purple Rose of Cairo, when Mia Farrow lures her favorite movie star off the silver screen and into the gritty Great Depression, and Gary Ross in Pleasantville, when Tobey McGuire is magically transported from his '90s living room to a '50s TV sitcom. And I’d swear I’ve seen Daffy Duck or Bugs Bunny (or both) endure similarly confounding transportations in old Warner Bros, cartoons.
But Keaton’s version of the movie magic obviously made the greater impact on me. So great, in fact, that at some long-ago point after enough exposure, I evidently assumed I’d seen everything else in his classic comedy.
The good news is, there’s an abundance of other funny stuff surrounding that unforgettable set piece, much more than enough for Sherlock, Jr. to qualify as one of Keaton’s grandest achievements. (The folks at the Library of Congress must agree with that appraisal – they added Sherlock, Jr. to the National Film Registry in 1991, two years after placing Keaton’s The General on that exclusive list.) Stripped to absolute essentials at a fleet 45-minute running time, the movie showcases “The Great Stone Face” at his most ingeniously uproarious on either side of the dividing line between the real world and the reel fantasy.
Consider the scene in which Keaton’s projectionist hero proves too honest for his own good when, while sweeping the theater, he finds dollar bills amid the garbage. He’s briefly overjoyed – well, OK, as overjoyed as Keaton ever permits himself to appear on screen – because now he can afford a huge box of candy for his sweetie. But one patron, and then another, shows up to claim the lost money. To his credit, Keaton returns the cash – reluctantly -- but not before asking for detailed description of the dollar bills.
Or consider a later scene in which Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. prepares for a confrontation with bad guys gathered in an inner-city shack. Much like Chow Yun-Fat took the precaution of placing loaded guns in strategic locations along a hallway before bursting in to attack his foes in John Woo’s The Killer, Sherlock Jr. affixes a hoop to a window – so that, when he has to make a quick escape by jumping through that window, he quick-changes into a disguise, that of an elderly woman, that he stuffed into that hoop. So, of course, when the bad guys come outside… yeah, you guessed it, they overlook the old lady. For a while, at least.
And then there’s the thoroughly remarkable sequence that has Sherlock Jr. perched atop the handlebars of a motorcycling racing throughout the city and into the nearby countryside, all the while blissfully unaware that his assistant has toppled off the bike, and there’s actually no one steering the rapidly speeding vehicle. Keep in mind: Sherlock, Jr. was made back in 1924, when special effects were relatively primitive and CGI simply didn’t exist. It’s entirely possible that Keaton cheated a bit during some of the hairier stunts. But when the motorcycle approaches a lengthy gap in a bridge, and it looks like two trucks just might not position themselves on the road below in time to fill that gap for the oblivious Sherlock Jr. – well, I defy you not to interrupt your laugher with a full-throated “Yikes!”
On at least two occasions, Jackie Chan has told me – and, I’m sure, many other people – that he doesn’t merely want to be like Buster Keaton, he wants to be Buster Keaton, period. (Which, of course, explains all the seriocomic Keatonesque stunts in Chan’s action-adventures, particularly Supercop.) It’s easy to understand his admiration: Like Keaton, Chan insists on doing his own stunts. And, again like Keaton, he often has suffered for his art.
But it’s unlikely that even Jackie Chan has ever suffered as much, or risked as much, as Keaton did during the making of Sherlock, Jr. when the projectionist runs across the tops of several freight cars on a moving train, then tries to break his fall after he reaches the end by grabbing the waterspout of a water tower along the track.
Unfortunately, the projectionist doesn’t count on the spout being pulled down by his weight, and dousing him with water. Even more unfortunately, Keaton didn’t count on the force of the rushing water slamming him onto the railroad track below.
In the movie, the ever-resilient hero, in true Keatonesque fashion, immediately rebounds from his temporary setback and continues his mad dash. In real life, however, Keaton felt enormous pain at the time of the accident, and would complain of sporadically severe headaches for months afterward. It wasn’t until a routine medical exam years later that Keaton learned he had fractured his neck during the incident, and easily could have been killed.
Knowing that makes it a little chilling to watch the gag that nearly cost Buster Keaton his life. Still, you can't help laughing out loud. At least, that was my experience while finally watching Sherlock, Jr. for the first of what I’m sure will be many, many times.