Sherlock Jr. (1924)
Run Time: 45:00
Producer: Buster Keaton Productions
Director: Buster Keaton
Key Cast: Buster Keaton, Kathryn McGuire, Joe Keaton
Joseph Frank Keaton was born on October 4, 1895 in Piqua, Kansas, to Joe Keaton and Myra Keaton. Joe and Myra were Vaudevillian comedians with a popular, ever-changing variety act, giving Keaton an eclectic and interesting upbringing. In the earliest days on stage, they traveled with a medicine show that included family friend, illusionist Harry Houdini. Keaton himself verified the origin of his nickname “Buster”, given to him by Houdini, when at the age of three, fell down a flight of stairs and was picked up and dusted off by Houdini, who said to Keaton’s father Joe, also nearby, that the fall was ‘a buster’. Savvy showman Joe Keaton liked the nickname, which has stuck for more than 100 years.
Before the advent of special effects teams using models or double-exposures to mimic dangerous action, a surprising number of silent film actors performed their own stunts ‘in-camera’ – meaning the events were totally real, although very carefully planned. The premier example of the actor/stuntman was Buster Keaton, who can be seen riding a motorcycle from the handlebars, riding through fences, and making dangerous jumps across moving trucks between gaps in a bridge. It’s still great stuff!
Keaton is widely considered the best physical comedian of the silent era, thinking up and executing his own elaborate stunts, and directing himself in wildly popular films during the 1920s. His po-faced expression, which subtly morphs from maudlin to curious to shocked, was a key to his comedy, being a total contrast with the outrageous antics in his films. Keaton included elaborate stunt riding on a 1923 Harley-Davidson ‘J’ model in the 1924 film ‘Sherlock Jr,’ which can be seen above. Another scene in ‘Sherlock’, featuring a moving train and water tower, actually fractured his neck vertebrae – but Keaton didn’t realize it until he was x-rayed years later. He had an exceedingly long movie career, successfully making the transition to ‘talkies’ and then into television. His last film appearance was ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’ (1966), when he was 70 years old.
For more on motorcycles in silent film, see The Vintagent article: The Silent Types.