Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)
“The Laugh Special of the Age. See It.”
Director: Chas F. Reisner
Cast: Buster Keaton, Tom McGuire, Ernest Torrence
Synopsis: The effete son of a cantankerous riverboat captain comes to join his father’s crew.
Steamboat Bill Jr. was probably Keaton’s last truly great movie. The Cameraman would follow for MGM later the same year, and that’s a good movie too, but it still marked the beginning of Keaton’s decline under the inflexible constraints of a studio system that simply didn’t understand how best to harness his comic genius. As with most of his classics, it’s Keaton’s physical courage and dexterity that impresses most. Charles Reisner is credited as the director, but it was actually Keaton who helmed the movie, and you just have to watch it to know that the credit should all go to him.
Keaton plays William Canfield Jr., who upon leaving school is sent to stay with his estranged father, William Sr. (Ernest Torrence) aboard his tramp steamer at Riverside Junction on the Mississippi. As they haven’t seen one another since Junior was a little kid, Keaton gets plenty of mileage out of the way they each try to identify the other. Dad’s excitement at being re-united with the son he hasn’t seen for years quickly turns to disappointment however when he finally sets eyes on him. Junior is a short, slight figure who sports a dandy’s moustache, wears a beret and plays a ukelele. Nevertheless, after having him get his moustache shaved off and instructing him to buy some work clothes — Junior settles for a complete naval officer’s outfit — he sets his son to work on his steamboat and attempts to show him the ropes. But Junior’s attention is distracted by the pretty figure of Kitty King (Marion Byron, whose debut this was), the daughter of rival steamboat operator J. J. King (Tom McGuire), whose boat is vastly superior.
The movie follows Junior’s frustrated attempts to woo young Kitty, a task that isn’t aided by the fact that her father disapproves of him as much as his own father disapproves of her. But key to Keaton’s success was the way in which he created underdogs who were rarely discouraged by the near insurmountable odds they had to overcome in order to achieve their goal. Although Keaton famously never displayed any emotion, it was his characters’ dogged determination that won audiences over and made him a much more endearing hero than those of his contemporary, Charlie Chaplin. It’s what I believe makes Keaton the better of the two — he never relied on sometimes cloying sentimentalism the way that Chaplin did.
At 33 he was way too old for the part of Junior, but he still possessed the physical prowess required to perform the numerous stunts, which are particularly impressive in the final reel when he battles against the elements during a violent thunderstorm in order to rescue both fathers and Kitty. But the most memorable — and famous — stunt involved Keaton doing nothing more energetic than standing completely still as the front wall of a timber house falls on top of him. While Keaton took painstaking measures to ensure he was strategically positioned so that an open window meant he was unharmed by the collapsing structure, he was also reportedly so depressed at receiving the news that his production company had gone into bankruptcy that he didn’t really care whether the building fell on him or not. Tragedy and comedy was never so finely balanced…
Reviewed 25th March 2013)