Buster Keaton Penelope Gilliatt - Essay

Penelope Gilliatt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Keaton's character in "Sherlock Jr." is very much Buster's. Sherlock is cultivated, well dressed, virtuous, and fortunate. He is the forerunner of the well-heeled central figure of "Battling Butler" (1926), of the posh college son of the old captain in "Steamboat Bill, Jr." (1928), and, most of all, of Rollo Treadway, the augustly decorous hero of "The Navigator" (1924, but later than "Sherlock Jr."). In the beginning of his dream, The Boy is constantly buffeted by the alien film's overcutting by what Keaton once called to me "the homeless camera." (Like Renoir, among most other great directors, Keaton detested restless editing, and chose that audiences be able to watch in their own time what he was doing.) No sooner does Sherlock jump off a rock into water than it turns out to be snow. No sooner is he on a mountain than he finds himself on flat earth again, between two alarmingly interested lions. Aesthetically, the film plays a subtle and entrancing trick. The movie that the dozy, wistful projectionist is watching is "real," or else his dream of walking into it would not be "unreal;" therefore, the idea that cinema is an illusion is illusory. Sherlock as a figment of film dream can still be harmed by the legerdemain of moviemaking. "Sherlock Jr." transports us because of its gaiety, and also because it understands the truths about the universe which lie in pretense and magic. (p. 48)

Penelope Gilliatt, "Farce, Comedy, and a Sag in the Male Loner's Facelift," in The New Yorker (© 1975 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LI, No. 28, September 1, 1975, pp. 46-8.∗