This essay is for the See You in the Fall blogathon. Check out the roster for other posts celebrating our favorite moments in physical comedy. (Also forgive me for the lack of photos. WordPress is not co-operating today.
Sherlock Jr. was a monumental film in my earliest days of silent film geekdom. It was the film that solidified an admiration for silent cinema in general and converted me into a Buster Keaton fanatic overnight.
It’s hard to select a favorite scene. Buster jumping into the world of the screen and undergoing a series of editing shifts is rightly the most celebrated in the film and has been dissected countless times. The pool game is hilarious and creative (Hilariously creative? Creatively hilarious?). The moment where Buster seems to leap through his assistants stomach and disappear had me rewinding the film and still dazzles. But when push comes to shove, the motorcycle race to save Kathyrn MacGuire is the highlight of the movie for me.
The sequence starts off with Sherlock running down the street as he is pursued by one of his rival’s gang members. A mustachioed police officer on a motorcycle stops to question Sherlock as to what’s the matter, causing the pursuing goon to retreat; however, it turns out the officer is really Sherlock’s assistant Gillette in a not-so-convincing faux-stache (a cute in-joke referring to actor William Gillette, who played Sherlock Holmes onstage and in a 1916 film version long thought lost, only to be rediscovered last year). Sherlock hops onto the front of the bike and points Gillette in the direction of the place where the heroine is being held against her will.
Unfortunately for Sherlock, Gillette is tossed off the bike when they hit a pothole, leaving Sherlock balanced on the handlebars as the bike rushes driver-less through the streets. Unwitting of his predicament, Sherlock is taken at high speeds through the busy roads in town, through a bachelor party in the country, barely evading trains, trucks, trees, dynamite, and collapsing bridges. Either his guardian angel is working overtime or fate is being especially good to him until he crashes through the window of a shack and knocking one of the occupiers through the opposite window. Conveniently, the shack is where the heroine is being held and the victim of Buster’s dramatic entry is none other than one of the rival’s goons.
Keaton’s physicality is astounding. No doubt today, the scene would be shot with a CG double in the long shots or the actor in front of a green screen. Not in the silent era and certainly not under Keaton’s watch: he learned how to control the bike from the handlebars before shooting and shot the majority of the sequence on actual streets. There are a few moments of cinematic trickery, such as the bit with Buster evading a train being played backwards or the two trucks forming a bridge being a composite shot, but if you’re expecting rear projection or miniatures, you will not find them here.
The funniest moment comes when Sherlock realizes his situation, turning around only to find Gillette has been long gone. The bike jerks as though channeling the character’s shock. Then Sherlock looks straight into the camera with a look of indignation, as though we should have mentioned this mishap to him from beyond the fourth wall.
The magic of the scene comes from its illusion of spontaneity. While silent comedians did do a great deal of improvisation, there’s little chance that a sequence as intricate as the motorcycle chase had much room for that. That it feels so immediate, as though this were all unfolding in real time and operating on the good graces of Lady Luck, is a testament to Keaton and his creative team.