Hard to believe it’s taken me this long to get around one of the first, probably the greatest, and certainly the most influential movie-in-movie movie. (Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo is basically a remake.) I refer to Buster Keaton’s 1924 silent classic Sherlock Jr. Buster plays a projectionist who aspires to become a detective and longs for “The Girl” (Kathryn McGuire. Keaton didn’t give names to any characters in the film, perhaps to emphasize a dream-like quality). Unfortunately, “The Sheik” (Ward Crane) steals the Girl’s father’s watch and pins the crime on Buster, who is banished from the house.
Back at the theater, he’s screening a melodrama called Hearts & Pearls. A sign outside displays its subtitle: “Or, the Lounge Lizard’s Lost Love — In Five Parts.” The title, and the length, are digs at the sentimental work of D.W. Griffith, who had made A String of Pearls in 1918 and who directed at least a dozen movies containing the word “heart,” including The Mother’s Heart, Hearts of the World, True Heart Suzie, Tender Hearts, and A Change of Heart. Buster falls asleep, and a transparent phantasm rises out of his body and looks at the film. As if by magic, the male and female lead (uncredited) suddenly turn into The Sheik and The Girl, and he commences making love to her (in the old-fashioned sense). Buster puts on his hat (of course) and descends from the projection booth to the audience. His reaction to what he sees is probably the greatest example I’ve ever witnessed of someone acting with his back.
Note Buster’s practiced tumble when he’s thrown out of the movie, including breaking his fall with his hands. He had, of course, started his career as a little kid on the vaudeville stage, where his principal role was to be violently tossed about in the family act.
He manages to get back into the movie, and the bulk of (the brisk, 45-minute: no five acts here) Sherlock Jr. shows his increasingly surreal adventures. Just as he’s about to drown, he wakes up in the projection booth. Spoiler alert: it was all a dream. Suddenly, the Girl walks in and announces the truth has been revealed and he is forgiven. In a marvelous closing scene, he looks to the screen for his moves, much as Elliot did, with E.T.’s help. And talk about acting. Keaton hilariously expresses volumes with a shrug of his shoulder or a ten-millimeter eyebrow lift; take one look at his jumpy nervousness and you can see where Woody Allen — an acknowledged fan — got most of his physical shtick.