Steamboat Bill Jr.
US (1928) Dir. Charles Reisner
The penultimate film where he would have complete creative control, this Buster Keaton outing is remembered largely for one very famous and often imitated stunt. Yet there is so much more to Steamboat Bill Jr that remains overlooked.
As ever the story is kept simple and purely functional as a backdrop for Keaton’s trademark physical slapstick comedy. William “Steamboat Bill” Canfield (Ernest Torrence) is the owner of a rundown paddle steamer that can no longer compete against the modern luxury river boat of rich rival John James King (Tom McGuire). Canfield hopes the arrival of his son from Boston, whom he hasn’t seen since he was a baby, will help turn things around. Expecting a hulking chip of the old block Canfield finds his son (Keaton) is a short, slightly built and sensitive chap instead. Meanwhile King’s daughter Kitty (Marion Byron) arrives in town, and happens to also be Junior’s love, a relationship both father’s are keen to break up.
You could probably count on both hands and feet the amount of films which share the same storyline but we don’t watch Keaton’s films for the plot and as ever he delivers a genius blend of subtle visual gags, belly laugh slapstick and of course death defying stunts. As mentioned before, the most famous moment from this film comes during the climactic typhoon sequence where a house front falls down around Keaton, who barely fits in the space of the window frame that ensures his safety. Keaton actually did this stunt a few years earlier in the short One Week but this version is the one people remember the most.
The big storm is the main set piece for Keaton’s stunt fest but the preceding sixty minutes has some hidden gems in it too. You wouldn’t think it but Keaton manages to make buying a hat into a tortuous yet humorous experience, rejecting all of his father’s choices who in turn rejects the cloth cap his son is drawn to. Later on a territorial dispute between the two fathers shows off Keaton’s masterful timing as well as his adroit physical agility and precision as Junior is passed between two docked boats.
As the feud rages between the two patriarchs King uses his overreaching local influence to have Canfield jailed leaving it up to Junior to hatch an escape plan. The gags are now old but in 1928 they were fresh but even so, it is Keaton who makes them fresh and funny. Just watch how he tries to signal to his father that the loaf of bread he refused was full of tools to help him escape (told you the gags were old). If you can’t laugh at that you have no heart.
However we have to talk about the ridiculous pratfalls that Keaton took for the storm sequence for the sake of our entertainment. Yes he was a trained acrobat, but considering he broke his neck a few years earlier (during the filming of Sherlock Jr) it is disturbing to see the amount of bumps on his head and neck he takes here. In one spot he literally skids on his face as the gales of wind impedes his escape to safety. A number of the stunts again where ingenious and revolutionary for their time, including Buster being blown about the street on a bed or on an uprooted tree trunk!
What people tend to forget is that these stunts were done for real with no CGI or models and, for Keaton, no stunt double. Co-star Marion Bryan couldn’t swim so Keaton’s sister Louise was her stand in for the final act where they fall into the water. The only person who has followed Keaton’s footsteps in modern day cinema is Jackie Chan who has very open about the influence Keaton had on him and his work, and you can see that in the tumbling about and creativity of some of his bigger stunts. The wind turbine scene in Operation Condor almost surely was inspired by the storm sequence here.
Apparently the original ending was for a flood but the real life flooding of the Mississippi river a year earlier meant a rewrite was in order. The breakaway sets cost $135,000 which was a lot of money but the effect is stupendous and perhaps we should be thankful that the script was changed as I can’t imagine we’d get the same laughs, drama and indeed that iconic building stunt if we had the original flood sequence.
Like many comedians of his era Keaton was a one man film making gang – even if the credits didn’t reflect this – and proved to be for the best. This film was the last he made for United Artists, who were a little cautious after the expensive flop that was the now classic The General, and their purse string tightening forced Keaton to try his luck with MGM. Unfortunately this move meant Keaton lost all his creative control, which ultimately saw a noticeable decline in his output and with the advent of sound a decline in fortunes, leading to his depression and alcoholism.
One wonders what kind of films Keaton could have made if MGM left him to his own devices, which we’ll never find out, but as long as gems like Steamboat Bill Jr are recorded for posterity and still available for us to enjoy the magic and genius of Buster Keaton will never be forgotten.