Sherlock Jr.

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Sherlock Jr.
Theatrical release poster
Directed byBuster Keaton
Written by
Produced by
StarringBuster Keaton
Edited byBuster Keaton
Music byClub Foot Orchestra (1999)
Robert Israel (2020)
Distributed byMetro-Goldwyn Pictures
Release date
  • April 21, 1924 (1924-04-21)
Running time
45 minutes (5 reels)
CountryUnited States
LanguageSilent (English intertitles)
Box office$448,337

Sherlock Jr. is a 1924 American silent comedy film directed by and starring Buster Keaton and written by Clyde Bruckman, Jean Havez, and Joseph A. Mitchell. It features Kathryn McGuire, Joe Keaton, and Ward Crane.

In 1991, Sherlock Jr. was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". In 2000, the American Film Institute, as part of its AFI 100 Years... series, ranked the film #62 in its list of the funniest films of all time (AFI's 100 Years... 100 Laughs).


Sherlock, Jr.

Buster is a movie theater projectionist and janitor. When the cinema is empty, he reads a book on How to be a Detective. He is in love with a woman. However, he has a rival, the "local sheik". Neither has much money. He finds a dollar note in the garbage he swept up in the lobby. He takes it and adds it to the $2 he has. A woman comes and says that she lost a dollar. He gives it back. But then a sad old woman also says that she lost a dollar, so he gives that also, leaving himself with $1. A man comes and searches the garbage and finds a wallet full of money. The projectionist buys a $1 box of chocolates, all he can afford, and changes the price to $4 before giving it to the woman he loves at her house. He later gives her a ring.

The sheik comes into the house and steals the woman's father's pocket watch and pawns it for $4. With the money, he buys a $3 box of chocolates for the woman. When the father notices that his watch is missing, the sheik slips the pawn ticket into the projectionist's pocket unnoticed. The projectionist, studying to be a detective, offers to solve the crime, but when the pawn ticket is found in his pocket, he is banished from the house. However, when the sheik leaves, he walks closely behind him and shadows every movement. The sheik loses him by shutting him in a train car. Later, the woman takes the pawn ticket to the pawnbroker and asks him to describe who pawned it. He points to the sheik outside.

While showing a film (advertised in the lobby as "Hearts and Pearls") about the theft of a pearl necklace, the projectionist falls asleep and dreams that he enters the movie as a detective, Sherlock Jr. The other actors are replaced by the projectionist's "real" acquaintances. The dream begins with the theft being committed by the villain with the aid of the butler. The woman's father calls for the world's greatest detective and Sherlock Jr. arrives.

Fearing that they will be caught, the villain and the butler attempt to kill Sherlock through several traps, poison, and an elaborate pool game with an exploding 13 ball. When these fail, the villain and butler try to escape. Sherlock Jr. tracks them down to a warehouse but is outnumbered by the gang to which the villain was selling the necklace. During the confrontation, Sherlock discovers that they have kidnapped the woman. With the help of his assistant, Gillette, Sherlock Jr. manages to save the woman, and after a car chase, manages to defeat the gang.

When he awakens, the woman shows up to tell him that she and her father learned the identity of the real thief after she went to the pawn shop to see who actually pawned the pocket watch. As a reconciliation scene happens to be playing on the screen, the projectionist mimics the actor's romantic behavior.


  • Buster Keaton as Projectionist / Sherlock Jr. – A poor, young projectionist who wants to marry The Girl. He has an interest in being a detective and when he falls asleep, he dreams of being Sherlock Jr., the world's greatest detective.
  • Kathryn McGuire as The Girl – The daughter of a fairly wealthy man, whom the Projectionist is in love with. In the dream, she must be saved by Sherlock Jr.
  • Joe Keaton as The Girl's Father – A man who is wealthier than most. He does not want his daughter marrying a thief. In the dream, he is a very rich man.
  • Erwin Connelly as The Hired Man / The Butler – A hired man of the girl's father. In the dream, he is a co-conspirator in the theft of the necklace.
  • Ward Crane as The Local Sheik / The Villain – A poor scoundrel that has his eyes for the girl. He steals the pocket watch, and in the dream, he is the villain who steals the necklace.
  • Ford West as Theatre Manager / Gillette, Sherlock's assistant – The projectionist's boss in the real world. In the dream, he is the assistant. (uncredited)
  • Jane Connelly as The Mother (uncredited)
  • George Davis as Conspirator (uncredited)
  • Doris Deane as Girl Who Loses Dollar Outside Cinema (uncredited)
  • Christine Francis as Candy Store Girl (uncredited)
  • Betsy Ann Hisle as Little Girl (uncredited)
  • Kewpie Morgan as Conspirator (uncredited)
  • Steve Murphy as Conspirator (uncredited)
  • John Patrick as Conspirator (uncredited)


Originally titled The Misfit, production began in January 1924 in Los Angeles. Keaton later said that his character walking onto the screen and into a film was "the reason for making the whole picture ... Just that one situation."[1] After previously casting her in Three Ages, Keaton cast Marion Harlan as the lead actress, but she became sick and was replaced by up-and-coming Keystone Studios actress Kathryn McGuire, who had previously starred in The Silent Call and was a WAMPAS Baby Star of 1923.[2]

Keaton initially hired Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle as his co-director for the film. Keaton had been discovered by Arbuckle, whose career was at a standstill after being accused of raping Virginia Rappe in 1921. During the scandal and court case, Arbuckle had lost his mansion and cars and was in debt for $750,000. Keaton wanted to help his old friend and hired Arbuckle under the pseudonym "William Goodrich". It is believed that the idea for the film was a tribute to Oscar Heinrich, the forensic scientist involved in the rape trial against Arbuckle. Filming began well and Arbuckle was happy to be back on set, but after Keaton corrected a mistake that Arbuckle had made, his attitude changed dramatically.[2]

Arbuckle became angry and abusive on set, yelling at actors and according to Keaton becoming "flushed and mad ... [the scandal] just changed his disposition."[3] In his autobiography, Keaton claimed that Arbuckle was difficult to work with and he arranged for him to direct The Red Mill instead so that Keaton could complete the film alone. The Red Mill did not begin production until 1927. Arbuckle's second wife Doris Deane later claimed that Arbuckle had directed the entire film and had come up with all of the ideas for the film.[4]

The production included one of Keaton's most famous on-set accidents. In a scene where Keaton grabs a water spout while walking on a moving boxcar train, the water unexpectedly flooded down on Keaton much harder than anticipated, throwing him to the ground. The back of Keaton's neck slammed against a steel rail on the ground and caused him to black out. The pain was so intense that Keaton had to stop shooting later that day and he had "blinding headaches" for weeks afterwards, but continued working, having a well-known high threshold for physical pain.[5]

It was not until 1935 that a doctor spotted a callus over a fracture in Keaton's top vertebra in an X-ray.[5] The doctor informed Keaton that he had broken his neck during the accident nine years earlier and not realized it. Keaton famously always performed his own stunts, and this was not the only accident on set. In another scene, the motorcycle Keaton was riding skidded and smashed into two cameras, knocking over Eddie Cline and throwing Keaton onto a nearby car.[6]

Sherlock Jr. was also Keaton's most complicated film for special optical effects and in-camera tricks. The film's most famous trick shot involves Keaton jumping into a small suitcase and disappearing. Keaton later said that it was an old vaudeville trick that his father had invented, and he later performed it on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1957, but never publicly revealed how he did it.[6] The trick was accomplished with a trap door behind the suitcase and an actor lying horizontally with long clothes hiding his absent bottom torso, which then allowed the actor to smoothly fall forward and walk as though he had always been standing vertically.[7]

Keaton later said that they "spent an awful lot of time getting those scenes". Filming took four months, while typically it took Keaton two months to finish a feature film. The editing was also difficult and took longer than a typical Keaton film.[7] Keaton later told film historian Kevin Brownlow "every cameraman in the business went to see that picture more than once trying to figure out how the hell we did some of that."[8]

Keaton depicted an early example of a film within a film in the dream sequence. Keaton's character leaves the projection room and goes down into the theater, then walks into the film being screened on the stage. Keaton later explained that this stunt was achieved through the use of lighting: "We built a stage with a big black cut-out screen. Then we built the front-row seats and orchestra pit. ... We lit the stage so it looked like a motion picture being projected on to a screen".[9]

Keaton's character is kicked out of the film a few times but finally manages to stay in, and is then depicted in a series of different scenes including a park, a lake, and a desert, through a series of cuts.[10] This was unique at the time because there was a continuity to the scenes and this strategy had rarely been used by filmmakers before. Keaton and his cameraman were able to do this by using surveyor's instruments to position Keaton and the camera at exactly the right distances and positions to support the illusion of continuity.[9][11]


Release and critical response[edit]

Keaton first previewed the film in Long Beach, California. Although audience members gasped at some of the special effects, there were very few laughs, and Keaton began re-editing the film to make it funnier. However, the second preview screening was more disappointing than the first, and Keaton continued cutting the film down to a very short 5-reel film. Producer Joseph Schenck wanted Keaton to add another 1,000 feet of film (approximately 11 minutes), but Keaton refused.[7]

The film was retitled Sherlock Jr. and released on April 21, 1924. It made $448,337, slightly less than Three Ages. Keaton considered the film "alright [but] not one of the big ones", possibly due to the fact that it was his first real failure after a then 25-year career on stage and screen.[7]

Adding to the film's mediocre box office, Sherlock Jr. received mixed critical reviews. It received good reviews from The New York Times, which called it "one of the best screen tricks ever incorporated in a comedy",[12] and Photoplay, which called it "rare and refreshing".[7] Other positive notices came from The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and The Atlanta Constitution.[13][14][15] Negative reviews included Picture Play, which wrote that it was devoid of "ingenuity and originality". Variety wrote it was as funny as "a hospital operating room". Edmund Wilson of The New Republic criticized Keaton's performance for not having enough character development and the film for having too much "machinery and stunts".[7]


Dwight Macdonald, in his book On Movies, notes the sophistication of the premise: "the second half of Sherlock Junior cuts free across magical territory. By a great stroke of invention, the lovesick Buster is a movie projectionist, so that the medium becomes the artist’s material, an advanced approach Buster had never heard of ... He falls asleep in the projection booth, dreaming about his girl and his frustrated love. His doppelganger extracts itself from his sleeping body ... and walks down the aisle of the darkened theatre to climb up on the stage and into the society-crook melodrama being projected on the screen ... There's no explanation for this or any other lapsus naturalis in this 1924 film which makes later efforts by Dalí, Buñuel and Cocteau look pedestrian and a bit timid. They felt obliged to clarify matters by a symbolistic apparatus. Keaton never rose—or sunk—to that."[16]

In 2005, Time named Sherlock Jr. as one of the All-Time 100 Movies. The magazine stated "The impeccable comedian directs himself in an impeccable silent comedy ... Is this, as some critics have argued, an example of primitive American surrealism? Sure. But let's not get fancy about it. It is more significantly, a great example of American minimalism—simple objects and movement manipulated in casually complex ways to generate a steadily rising gale of laughter. The whole thing is only 45 minutes long, not a second of which is wasted. In an age when most comedies are all windup and no punch, this is the most treasurable of virtues."[17]

Film critic Dennis Schwartz wrote that Sherlock Jr. is "one of Buster's superior silent comedies that's noted for his usual deadpan humor, frolicsome slapstick, the number of very funny sight gags, the many innovative technical accomplishments and that he did his own stunts (including the dangerous one where he was hanging off a ladder connected to a huge water basin as the water poured out and washed him onto the railroad track, fracturing his neck nearly to the point of breaking it. Keaton suffered from severe migraines for years after making this movie)."[18] David Thomson, in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, refers to the film as Keaton's "masterpiece" and "the most philosophically eloquent of silent comedies".[19]

Rotten Tomatoes reports a 94% approval from 17 critics, with an average rating of 9.7/10.[20]

In 2012, it was ranked number 61 in a list of the best-edited films of all time as selected by the members of the Motion Picture Editors Guild.[21] It was a major influence on Woody Allen's 1985 film The Purple Rose of Cairo.[1] In the 2012 Sight & Sound polls, it was ranked the 59th-greatest film ever made in the critics' poll.[22] In 2015, Sherlock Jr. ranked 44th on BBC's "100 Greatest American Films" list, voted on by film critics from around the world.[23]

Forty minutes into the film, Buster jams on the brakes of the car he is driving, causing the chassis to stop and the body to keep going. This gag was reused in the 1987 James Bond film The Living Daylights.

On January 1, 2020, the film entered into the public domain in the United States.[24][25]

On January 5, 2023, Richard Brody included it on his list of "Thirty-four Movies That Celebrate the Movies".[26]


In 1991, Sherlock Jr. was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

The film was ranked 62nd on the American Film Institute's list AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs (2000).[27]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Meade, p. 142.
  2. ^ a b Meade, p. 143.
  3. ^ Meade, p. 144.
  4. ^ Meade, p. 325–326.
  5. ^ a b Meade, p. 145.
  6. ^ a b Meade, p. 146.
  7. ^ a b c d e f Meade, p. 147.
  8. ^ Wakeman, John (1987). World Film Directors, Volume 1. New York, New York: The H. W. Wilson Company. ISBN 978-0-8242-0757-1. p. 526.
  9. ^ a b Knopf 1999, p. 104.
  10. ^ Knopf 1999, p. 103.
  11. ^ Fay, Jennifer (January 2014). "Buster Keaton's Climate Change". Modernism/Modernity. 21 (1): 25–49. doi:10.1353/mod.2014.0006. S2CID 145240584.
  12. ^ The New York Times. Film review, May 26, 1924.
  13. ^ The Los Angeles Times. Film review, April 28, 1924.
  14. ^ The Washington Post. Film review, May 12, 1924.
  15. ^ The Atlanta Constitution. Film review, April 27, 1924.
  16. ^ Macdonald, Dwight (1969). On Movies.
  17. ^ Schickel, Richard (February 12, 2005). "Sherlock, Jr. (1924)". Time. Archived from the original on May 25, 2005. Retrieved November 11, 2018.
  18. ^ Schwartz, Dennis. Ozus' World Movie Reviews, film review, November 20, 2006. Last accessed: February 21, 2008.
  19. ^ Thomson, David. The New Biographical Dictionary of Film.
  20. ^ "Sherlock Jr. (1924)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved October 1, 2019.
  21. ^ The 75 Best Edited Films. Last accessed: January 5, 2013.
  22. ^ Christie, Ian, ed. (August 1, 2012). "The Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time". Sight & Sound. British Film Institute (September 2012). Archived from the original on March 1, 2017. Retrieved June 6, 2013.
  23. ^ "100 Greatest American Films". BBC. July 20, 2015. Archived from the original on September 16, 2016. Retrieved July 21, 2015.
  24. ^ "1924 Copyrighted Works To Become Part Of The Public Domain". NPR. December 30, 2019. Retrieved January 1, 2020.
  25. ^ "Public Domain Day 2020". Duke Law School's Center for the Study of the Public Domain. Retrieved January 1, 2020.
  26. ^ Brody, Richard (January 5, 2023). "Thirty-four Movies That Celebrate the Movies". The New Yorker.
  27. ^ "AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs" (PDF). American Film Institute. Archived from the original (PDF) on June 24, 2016. Retrieved August 7, 2016.

External links[edit]