Tomorrow night, Saturday, August 31, at 7:30 p.m. the Spreckels Organ Society will close out this year’s series of evening organ concerts at the Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park with its annual silent movie night. The evening will feature organist Clark Wilson playing a short program of pop songs and light selections from the silent-movie era and then providing live organ accompaniment to two silent films, much as you would hear in a theatre when these movies were new.
One of the films is a 20-minute short called “Chasing Choo Choos,” which the Spreckels Organ Society is heavily promoting because it was shot here in San Diego County, on a particularly vertiginous stretch of railroad track near El Cajon. The other is an acknowledged masterpiece, "Sherlock, Jr.,” made by Buster Keaton (he starred and co-directed with former Keystone Kop Eddie Cline) in 1924 and featuring Keaton as a small-town movie projectionist who dreams himself into the film he is showing.
The Society has been heavily promoting “Chasing Choo Choos” because of its local connection, and is virtually ignoring that they’re co-billing it with one of the greatest films of all time. When I posted to this blog about Christopher Nolan's film “Inception,” I wrote, “Buster Keaton’s ‘Sherlock, Jr.’ remains my all-time favorite dream movie — how a man with a reputation as a comedian could make a film in 1924, with only the most primitive effects technology available, that threaded the balance between reality and dreams so much more effectively than this one is a mystery.” Higlighting “Chasing Choo Choos” and ignoring “Sherlock, Jr.” in their promotion is like the San Diego Symphony announcing that they’re going to be playing a new serenade composed by a San Diego grade-school student and then, at the end of the press release, saying, “By the way, we’re also going to be playing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.”
Be warned that the Spreckels organ movie night always draws a full crowd, so though the event starts at 7:30 you should arrive two or three hours before to ensure you get a good seat. Following are my two earlier blog posts on “Chasing Choo Choos” (written after a previous Organ Pavilion showing of this film in 2014) and “Sherlock, Jr.”
The films Donald MacKenzie accompanied were two two-reel slapstick comedies, one a little-known vehicle for a largely forgotten comic and one an acknowledged masterpiece by a genius of the film. The little-known one was Chasing Choo Choos, a 1927 production starring and co-written by Monty Banks. Sometimes billed as Montague Banks, he was actually Italian by birth (the name on his birth certificate was “Mario Bianchi,” which makes me wonder why when he wanted an Anglo-sounding name he didn’t just call himself “White”) but emigrated first to England, then to the U.S., then back to England (where he was married to the legendary entertainer Gracie Fields) and finally back to the U.S. again, before dying at age 52 in 1950 back in Italy. Banks was both a star and director — he made Laurel and Hardy’s first film for 20th Century-Fox, Great Guns (1941), though like most of Laurel and Hardy’s Fox output it isn’t much (a stone ripoff of Abbott and Costello’s Buck Privates) — and he’s described on his bio page on imdb.com as “short, stocky, but somehow debonair,” which pretty well sums it up. Chasing Choo Choos was actually edited down from a feature film Banks had made the same year called Play Safe, though it doesn’t seem incomplete — indeed, one wonders how Banks could have got anything more out of his rather sketchy plot! The story casts Banks as a worker at a company technically owned by a dissatisfied heiress (Virginia Lee Corbin, a child star of the ’teens attempting a comeback in adult roles) but actually run by two unscrupulous one-percenters who are worried that if she marries Banks, with whom she’s in love, once she comes of age and inherits her fortune they’ll be frozen out and left without any money. So they hire a gang of thugs (including Bud Jamison, later a “regular” in the Three Stooges films) to kidnap her and frame Banks for the crime.
The first half of the film isn’t much — mainly a bunch of confusing fight scenes — but the second half, filmed on location on a particularly perilous stretch of railroad in San Diego’s East County (modeled in one of the most spectacular exhibits in San Diego’s Model Railway Museum, also in Balboa Park), is magnificent even though through much of it one’s wondering whether to laugh or simply sit and gape with astonishment at the sheer peril Banks and his crew put him and the other actors through. Though one scene in which Banks falls from the train into a nearby gorge and lands on a runaway car that’s on a track below it was pretty obviously done with a dummy and a model train, much of this movie has the same vertiginous thrill content as a Harold Lloyd comedy, made all the more scary by the knowledge that there was no way to fake most of this stuff in 1927: Banks’ body was really hanging over gorges and suspended over tracks as the train sped along. He proves a surprisingly athletic man even though he was short and stocky — he didn’t have the athlete’s build of Lloyd or Buster Keaton — and the film itself is quite engaging. It also benefits from the personality of Virginia Lee Corbin (whose first name is misspelled “Viginia” in the non-original credits of this version), who should have had more of a career than she got; she died tragically young (at 31 in 1942) after a quirky career during which she played in elaborate fairy-tale spoofs with all-child casts in the mid-teens (before that she’d been the baby rocking in the cradle in the framing scenes of D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance), and she barely made it into the talkie era but pretty much stopped working after 1931 (her only subsequent credits are unbilled bit parts from 1938 and 1940). The existing credits list only Banks and Corbin, and don’t credit a director, but he was someone else with a Griffith connection: Joseph Henabery, who played Lincoln in The Birth of a Nation and found a niche directing band shorts for Warner Bros. in the 1930’s. — 8/18/14
Charles asked me if we please couldn’t watch something lighter than all the dark movies we’ve been seeing lately. I obliged him with the Buster Keaton masterpiece from 1924, Sherlock Jr., and the Marlene Dietrich/John Wayne version of Rex Beach’s The Spoilers from 1942. Sherlock Jr. is a movie that I remembered vividly even though I hadn’t seen it in over 25 years. William K. Everson noted in his book The Detective in Film that there were a lot of really bad silent comedies that had the name “Sherlock” in their titles to indicate they were detective-movie spoofs — and one great one, this one. It’s Keaton at his most eye-poppingly imaginative, as a movie projectionist who dreams himself into the film he is showing, and it’s sufficiently well-remembered that at least two major films in the 1980’s, Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (which reversed the central premise of Sherlock Jr. by having a movie character step out of the screen into real life) and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s The Last Action Hero, were inspired by it. Still stunning are the scenes in which Keaton is confronted by the ever-shifting scenic backgrounds of the movie he’s dreamed himself into (done in this era before process screens by having the sets of the various movies within the movie built behind a hole in the back wall of the movie-theatre set, representing the screen, with Keaton and his “human metronome” cameraman, Elgin Lessley, using surveyors’ instruments to make sure he was placed in exactly the same position each time the set was changed); the scene in which the villains of the piece try to kill him by inviting him to play pool, (presumably) not knowing that one of the pool balls (#13, of course!) contains a bomb (according to Everson, director/writer Rowland Brown repeated this scene in a serious context in a film called Blood Money nine years later!); the eye-popping scene in which he leaps through a window in which he’s placed a couturier’s case and emerges in drag, in the dress that was in the round box; and the even more eye-popping scene in which he leaps through a suitcase from which an old woman is selling knickknacks and ends up on the other side of the wall against which the woman is leaning. (In this one instance, Keaton broke his own rule against using physically impossible gags in a feature-length film — to stunning effect.) As Charles noted after we watched it, what’s also remarkable about Sherlock Jr. is the production value (especially by comparison to the extremely budget-conscious noirs we’ve been seeing a lot of lately) — Keaton literally spared no expense to get the film looking the way he wanted it to, and while some of the elaborate sets may have been pre-existing from other films, the overall effect is an inspiring one. Also impressive is the performance of his leading lady, Kathryn McGuire, who is equally credible as an innocent Mary Pickford clone in the framing story and a sophisticated Gloria Swanson-esque society woman in the film-within-the-film. (I’ve run out of time and will comment on the 1942 The Spoilers in a later entry.) — 11/15/97
Sherlock, Jr. and The Navigator both stem from the time when Buster Keaton’s career was at its absolute peak, both commercially (The Navigator was his biggest hit in the silent era) and artistically. He made them both for “Buster Keaton Productions,” though unlike Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd he was never well off enough (or cautious enough with his money to become well off enough) to finance his films himself; he still had a money man, Joseph M. Schenck, to answer to; Schenck had lured Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle away from Mack Sennett in 1917 to make independent movies for release through Paramount (thereby making Schenck a pioneer in the practice of producing independently but still seeking major-studio backing for production costs and distribution — which has been the way most films have been made since the death of the studio system). He’d picked up Keaton when Arbuckle hired him as a comic sidekick (supposedly Keaton came to visit the set of Arbuckle’s first independent film, The Butcher Boy, just because he was curious about how films were made — and Arbuckle put him to work, improvising comedy routines with him), and when Arbuckle graduated to feature-length films (and signed directly with Paramount to make them) Schenck put Keaton to work on a series of two-reel comedies as star and director. Eventually Keaton too moved up to feature-length films — though still relatively short ones (Sherlock, Jr. runs 45 minutes and The Navigator a shade over an hour) — and in the interviews he gave Rudi Blesh in 1965 (a year before his death) Keaton acknowledged that one reason he made Sherlock, Jr. was to have a chance to do the physically impossible gags he’d done in his shorts but which he didn’t feel worked for features. (This was the interview in which Blesh asked Keaton, “How did you come to make a surrealistic film like Sherlock, Jr.?” — and Keaton, who unlike Chaplin disdained any artistic intentions for his work, answered, “I did not mean it to be surrealistic! I just wanted it to look like a dream!”)
Actually the plot of Sherlock, Jr. is a dream — Keaton plays a projectionist in a small-town movie theatre who’s reading a book called How to Be a Detective and fantasizing being a crime-fighter. He’s got a girlfriend (Kathryn McGuire, refreshingly free of the coyness so many silent leading ladies fell into) but there’s also a rival for her affections, a character billed as “The local sheik” (Ward Crane), and this rather worm-eaten Lothario steals the pocket watch of the girl’s father (played by Keaton’s real-life father, Joe) and pawns it to buy the girl a box of chocolates. Then he plants the pawn ticket on Keaton so he will look like the thief, and the girl and her father throw him out of their house and tell him never to come back. A dejected Keaton returns to his job at the theatre and runs the movie Hearts and Pearls — whose opening credit refers to it as “A Veronal Production” (“Veronal” was the name of the first barbiturate sleeping pill ever manufactured, appropriate given what happens next) — and while the film is running he falls asleep, gets up (a ghostly image of Keaton rises out of Keaton’s body, so there’s a real-world Keaton sleeping in the projection booth as well as the dream-world Keaton), walks into the screen of the theatre and enters the world of the movie he’s showing, taking the part of the celebrated detective “Sherlock, Jr.” and setting out to solve the theft of the heroine’s pearl necklace.
After a sequence in which Keaton remains stationary while the background changes (at one point he’s on a coral reef about to dive into the water when the scene changes and he falls head-first into a snow drift), the film settles into a groove of almost constant action and — dare I say it? — surrealistic gags, including one in which Keaton’s assistant Gillette (Ford West, who’s also the manager of the theatre where Keaton works in the real-world framing sequences — and his character is named after William Gillette, the first actor to play Sherlock Holmes), places a round box containing a dress in the window of a building in which Keaton confronts the crooks — and in the middle of a chase sequence Keaton dives through the box and emerges in full drag, wearing the dress we’ve seen earlier. There’s also another sequence in which Keaton, cornered in a dead-end street with seemingly no means of escape, is accosted by a woman street peddler who points to her own chest and the case containing her wares that she’s wearing. She points to the case and Keaton eventually gets the message and escapes by diving through it and emerging through a gate on the other side. Another sequence shows Keaton on top of a train — the villain has tricked him into getting on a train and he’s running from car to car, and when he finally jumps from the train he leaps onto a water tank, grabs on the pipe that feeds water to the train, pulls it down with his own weight and ends up getting a blast of water from the tank. This sequence wasn’t faked or doubled in any way — Keaton not only did his own stunt work but got the full force of the water on him —and he suffered from blinding headaches the rest of the day, then felt O.K. the next day and got back to work. What he didn’t realize until years later was that he had broken his neck; a decade later Keaton was undergoing a routine medical examination and he was X-rayed, and his doctor saw the X-rays and asked him, “When did you break your neck?” “I never broke my neck,” Keaton said. “Oh yes, you did,” the doctor replied, showing him the X-rays to prove it — and eventually Keaton realized it must have been during the filming of that gag sequence.
What makes Sherlock, Jr. even more remarkable than it looks was that not only did it pre-date all our elaborate modern-day infrastructure of computer-generated imagery but it even preceded the invention of the process screen; in 1924 all special effects had to be done in the camera. There were only two ways to do a film-within-a-film then, and it’s clear Keaton used both of them. One was to mask out the portion of the frame representing the on-screen theatre, film the live action, and then rewind the undeveloped film, mask out everything but the on-screen theatre, and shoot the sequences that were supposed to represent the movie the live-action characters were watching. The other way was to build the theatre set with a hole in it representing the screen and have another group of actors performing simultaneously on another set and playing the characters in the movie-within-the-movie. Sherlock, Jr. has been a major influence on many filmmakers since — Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo simply inverted its central premise (instead of a projectionist walking into the world of the film he’s showing, Allen had a character in a movie step off the screen and into real life) and the little-remembered Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle The Last Action Hero was a Sherlock, Jr. knockoff set in the world of today’s fantasy cinema — and there’s also a connection I hadn’t realized before to The Wizard of Oz, which also presented fantasy action framed as the central character’s dream and involved the people in her real life as characters in her dream as well (a wrinkle added by the screenwriters — in L. Frank Baum’s source novel Dorothy’s journey to Oz was presented as a real event). Sherlock, Jr. holds up vividly today not only for its imagination but its sheer audacity — indeed, one gag in it (the villains plot to kill Keaton by inviting him to play pool and substituting a bomb for one of the balls) was repeated seriously nine years later in Rowland Brown’s gangster film Blood Money — and the fact that it was made at a time when effects work was in its infancy only makes it more amazing. — 4/8/10
 — I never did, but at this late date my primary reminiscence of this film is that Marlene Dietrich — tricked out in an enormous hairdo that looks like you could step under it and be out of the rain — was good but the rest of the film was just boring until the final fight scene at the end, which was staged and directed by action specialist B. Reaves “Breezy” Eason even though Ray Enright had overall directorial credit. I mentioned this to Charles and he noted that in the only other even remotely memorable Enright film, the 1934 musical Dames, he’d also had help from another director — Busby Berkeley, who staged the spectacular production numbers. (M.G.C., 6/23/05)