Sherlock Jr. (1924) is an interesting film in a lot of ways. After having seen the first silent films (such as Trip to the Moon (1902) and The Great American Train Robbery (1903)), it’s amazing to see how far the industry has evolved in just two decades. Of course, it’s not the best film ever made, but I was actually quite surprised at how thoroughly engaged I was the whole time. I mean, it’s enjoyable not only on a “look how far we’ve come” aspect, but I also found it hilarious.
I don’t know exactly what the typical runtime of a 1920’s silent film is, but for whatever reason I found Sherlock Jr.’s 45 minutes to be the perfect length. It’s much longer than older films, and so can tell a more compelling story, and yet not nearly as long as modern movies, so you don’t quite have time to grow impatient.
What amazed me most about the film is that I actually would liken it more closely to modern day movies than its early 1900 counterparts. It has impressive continuity shots and uses close-ups to establish important details and actions. It doesn’t have the clunky transitions and awkward camera angles of earlier films, and the fact that the camera shots are so rapid or dynamic keeps the action and the tension high, and yet it’s done with a clear focus so it never gets confusing, either.
The action of this film reminded me a lot of Wile E Coyote animations or Tom & Jerry skits in that a lot of the action sequences were established to the audience before they occurred (so that they could envision what might happen next), and then something entirely different or unexpected happened. It also used everyday comedy techniques in that sense, where it played up the audience’s expectations only to surprise them by having something completely different happen.
It also has some incredibly clever tricks for a silent film. I would have thought having an overexposure shot to show that the protagonist is dreaming (by giving him an out of body experience) would have been too far out of the scope of 1920’s cinema, and then they one-up that concept by having him jump into the film (inside a film) while he’s having this dream. Not only was it clever, but it was also very crisp and easy to follow. Bravo.
Of course, it isn’t without its faults. There are a few scenes where I couldn’t understand what was supposed to be happening (a common shortcoming of silent films, I think). The only way to establish what is happening is by having the character pantomime or demonstrate, so when two characters are simply speaking, it can be hard to follow. I was also a little confused as to who was who. If a character had no screen time for five or more minutes and was reintroduced later, I would have no idea who they were, or if they were a “good guy” or a “bad guy”.
Overall, I would actually recommend it to most everyone who has a good mind of picking up subtleties. It was amazing how funny they could be with just actions back then, and it speaks to the quality of the production that it still holds up to today as a funny and entertaining piece of media.