April 25, 1924 [Sherlock Jr.]
Despite the wonders of camera trickery--whose ability to fabricate disaster has spared many a screen hero--I believe we can now officially worry for Buster Keaton’s life. As the aspiring detective, Keaton’s movie theater operator is endangered by cinema itself: Banished from his sweetheart’s home--framed (ah, a word that will come to haunt him!) as a thief by his rival (the actual thief)--he returns to the projection room in defeat and despair, and falls asleep--only to awake and see his girl and the cad on the screen, into which he rushes--where he becomes not only a master detective but what may be the single most buffeted individual in the history of film comedy.
At first he is a mere prop within the movie’s frame, remaining at its center while the scene changes from garden to street to mountain-top to jungle to desert to rocky coastline to snowy hillside--and then the camera through which we observe Keaton in the movie-within-the-movie approaches this second movie, which fills our frame, until we, too, are in the movie-within-the-movie. (I’m getting light-headed just trying to describe it.)
And then the real violence begins, as the villains devise many plots to do him in--but they needn’t bother: Perched on the handle-bars of a driver-less motorcycle (a fact of which he is of course ignorant), Keaton whizzes through, admittedly, some wonderful, Méliès-like camera stunts--but he is also in the world itself--all right, the dream-world. But there’s nothing imaginary about the flips and falls he suffers, the near-hits and narrow escapes--at one point looking at us (two movies away, so to speak), as if to inquire blandly if we can believe what’s happening, since he certainly can not--until he realizes he is alone on the motorcycle, and literally flies into the shack where his girl is being held; and they escape in a car--more outlandish antics--until the car plunges into a river--and becomes a boat, the convertible top acting as sail, all ending well.
--And he awakens, once more in his own movie--and the girl arrives--she the actual detective, having found out that Keaton is innocent. And as they reconcile, Keaton peers at the movie through his little window—framed in the opening, and looking for all the world like a man in a movie--and picks up the cinema-cues of romantic behavior, clasping the girl, kissing her (quickly)--but, confronted by the movie’s postscript--the man and woman happily married, surrounded by moppets--the movies let him down, and all he can do is gaze perplexed, scratching his head.
Finally, it looks like everyone gets to be in the movies, including movie stars. Looks like fun--a bit hazardous, though; I think I’ll let Keaton go first.