Steamboat Bill, Jr.

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Thar She Blows! Keaton's Wind-Swept Classic

Sep 4, 2000
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:The awe inspiring, death defying series of inventive comic stunts which end the film.

Cons:None

As one of his last great silent films, Steamboat Bill Jr.(1928) is one of Buster Keaton's finest. Nearly a third of it's 69 minute running time is comprised of some of the most spectacular and funniest stunt work Keaton ever did. The General, Our Hospitality and the 45 minute Sherlock Jr. are better films but none are any more entertaining than Steamboat Bill Jr .

Bill (Ernest Torrence) is the tough Captain and owner of the old and somewhat run-down Stonewall Jackson river boat. He is about to be run out of business by the richest man in town, King (Tom McGuire). King has built a huge, fancy river-boat and gets the Stonewall condemned.

Bill then gets word that his son is going to visit him. He has not seen his son for many years–Bill Junior aka Willie, has been in college back east–and Bill Sr. imagines his son must be bigger than he is. He's pretty disappointed that not only does his son look like a 90 pound weakling, but he's got a city slicker hat on that has got to be replaced pronto. Father decides its time to make a man out of his son, while son Willie, has his eyes on a beautiful young lady (Marion Byron) who happens to be chief rival King's daughter.

Father Bill ends up in jail, and Buster Willie tries to break him out. He succeeds, but is almost accosted himself so Father turns himself back in and Willie is sent to the hospital with a minor injury. Just when it looks like the old Steamboat is doomed for extinction, and Willie won't get the girl the weather changes.

The final extended sequence of the film begins at the front porch of the King Hotel. King is warned that a wind storm is coming and the pier is not going to be strong enough to hold his fancy boat against the wind.

The wind blows and the death defying stunts, and inventive sight gags begin. A man tries to start his car, the wind blows the hood of the car up which makes the car into a land sail boat–with the man being dragged down the street holding onto his cars bumper. The car comes to a halt in front of the King Hotel. The Pier collapses and the King Steamboat breaks away and some of its crew leap for their lives. The entire front of the King Hotel collapses into splinters and is blown away. People on the street struggle as they run for cover and shelter.

Buster Willie who is in the hospital, remains in his bed as the patients and nurses flee out the hospital which is then entirely blown away. Buster tries to leave the area with remarkable calm but must leap onto his bed as it is propelled through the ruins of the town's streets and through a horse stable. In the middle of the street, Buster goes under the bed for cover. A man leaps from the second story of his house onto the bed. The Bed collapses on Buster. The wind blows the escaping man and the bed away.

Then the somewhat confused Willie rises to his feet, in front of the house that will be ripped apart by the winds and give us one of the most infamous and death defying stunts in all of movie history. As he stands groggy and confused, the entire two ton facade of the house falls and crashes over him. A small window opening just happens to have passed over the very spot he is standing. Buster had positioned himself with only inches to spare so that the facade would crash over him but avoid crushing him to death. If he had missed his mark by a few inches, or if something had gone wrong, Buster Keaton would have been crushed to death.

Realizing how close he has come to death, Willie tries to run, but the wind is too strong and soon he is sliding and tumbling and being blown as if he is a tumbleweed down the street. Eventually he winds up amongst stage props at what remains of the theater. More inventive gags follow leading to an exciting finale in which he must rescue his father from drowning in the Jail,the woman he loves, and more.

Steamboat Bill Junior may not be the most logical film Buster ever made, but it contains some of the most elaborate, inventive and most impressive comic stunts Buster ever concocted. I remain in utter amazement as I watch Keaton's agility, bravery and comic genius in full display throughout this film. Keaton did all of his own stunts. He designed many of them to be shot in longshots, choreographing movements so he tumbled or was dragged from end of the frame to the other.

His acrobatic ability continues to amaze. It should come as no surprise that one of Keaton's biggest fans is Jackie Chan, who carries on old stone-face ‘s tradition quite well.

The credits list Charles F. Reisner as the director of Steamboat Bill Jr., but it is unlikely Reisner even co-directed the feature with Keaton (Keaton did collaborate with Eddie Cline on several shorts). Keaton actually directed all of his feature films, sharing or giving away credit to a string of studio assigned directors who did very little work on Keaton's films.

Also featured on the wonderful KINO DVD (and video) are two wonderful Keaton shorts. Convict 13 and Daydreams. Convict 13 (1920) contains some clever physical slapstick choreography while Daydreams (1922) shows the early genesis of ideas that would be fully realized in the classic Sherlock Jr., and ends with an exciting chase scene in New York City.

Steamboat Bill Junior was the last film Buster made for producer Joseph M. Schenck. He would then begin his ill-fated contract with MGM. After The Camera Man and during Spite Marriage, the sound era began and MGM would team Keaton with Jimmy Durante (bad idea) and then in several mediocre comedies completely mis-using Keaton's talent and forcing severe restrictions on him. Keaton already in a bad marriage and an alcoholic, allowed his career to be destroyed.

After making some low-budget sound shorts for Columbia, Buster eventually wound up working as an often uncredited gag writer and stunt coordinator on several films throughout the 30's and 40's. He worked closely with Red Skeleton on most of Red's films (many of which were re-makes of Keaton's silents–including The General).

In the 50's he was rediscovered because of television and was humbled by a growing base of appreciative fans. He had a brief t.v. show, he was revered as a genius by the French New Wave. He appeared with Chaplin in Limelight and has a tiny role in Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard. He made an experimental film with Becket. He would appear in small roles in several films: including Richard Lester's film version of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

Almost at the very end of his life he would recreate some of his silent era triumphs with the Canadian produced short: The Railrodder.

For several years most of Keaton's films were under the strict control of Raymond Rohauer who rarely let his prints be shown and refused to license them (except on rare occasion)to video or even television. In the mid 90's Kino on Video obtained the rights and the Keaton films were once again widely available and can today be seen in beautifully restored and transferred prints.

Buster Keaton is one of the top directors, and comics who ever lived. He experimented with film in ways that none of his contemporaries even dreamed of and in doing so surpasses even Chaplin and Lloyd in terms of genius. Some of the innovations he explored continue to be used by modern film-makers today.

Christopher J. Jarmick Author (The Glass Cocoon with Serena F. Holder: Available November 2000)


Recommend this product? Yes


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