Buster Keaton’s comedic prowess and technical virtuosity are on full display in Sherlock Jr. and Three Ages, a pair of silent comedies bundled together in Kino’s latest Keaton Blu-ray release, following superb upgrades of The General and Steamboat Bill, Jr.
Of course, the real attraction here is Sherlock Jr., which is one of Keaton’s greatest accomplishments — a potent and uproariously funny deconstruction of the movie-making process that makes every one of its 44 minutes count — but the inclusion of Three Ages is a welcome one.
Sherlock Jr. stars Keaton as a movie projectionist who dreams of becoming a detective when he isn’t working to win the heart of a beautiful girl (Kathryn McGuire). He tries to win her over with chocolates and a ring, but is outshone by a richer man (Ward Crane), who presents her with nicer gifts.
When the girl’s father (Joe Keaton) discovers his watch has been stolen, the projectionist aims to put his detective knowledge to work, but ends up being framed by the perpetrator, leading to his falling out with the girl he longs for.
Later, while working at the movie theater, he falls asleep and imagines himself entering the very film that’s being projected, which Keaton pulls off with an astonishing bit of practical movie magic. Inside the world of the film, he must solve the case of a stolen string of pearls, and this time, he’ll have a little more success.
Sherlock Jr. is a breathlessly funny film that proceeds at breakneck speed, offering up sight gag after sight gag in a tightly packed ball of physical comedy. It also features some of his most elaborate stunts, including a bit with a water tower that fractured Keaton’s neck — a fact he didn’t discover until years later. In Sherlock Jr., a character’s life is transformed by his association with the movies — a fitting fate for Keaton, whose transformative influence on cinema can’t be overstated.
With Three Ages, Keaton gives us three intertwined love stories, set across the expanse of time, in a parody of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance. In each segment, Keaton plays an underdog trying to win the heart of a girl (Margaret Leahy), but failing to measure up against the far more impressive rival (Wallace Beery). The events follow a similar pattern in the Stone Age, Ancient Rome and the present Jazz Age.
Three Ages can feel a little repetitive — after all, all three stories purport to tell essentially the same tale — but Keaton’s knack for turning pratfalls into a thing of beauty is marvelously displayed here.