Friday, June 21, 2024

NFR Project: 'Steamboat Bill, Jr.' (1928)


Steamboat Bill, Jr.

Dir: Charles Reisner

Scr: Carl Harbaugh, Buster Keaton

Pho: Dev Jennings, Bert Haines

Ed: Sherman Kell

Premiere: May 12, 1928

70 min.

Keaton’s last great independent project is one of his best films. The master craftsman’s gags are more challenging and grand than ever, the humor underplayed magnificently. One last time, he was able to work on an epic scale, harnessing physics and geometery to fuel his jokes. In the world of silent comedy, Keaton was the master craftsman.

Plotwise, the story is much the same as other of his feature films such as Our Hospitality (1923) and The General (1926) – Buster is a sad sack, an underachiever who is inspired to great feats through his desire to win the hand of a beautiful girl. Here, he is a mollycoddle from Back East who must make his peace with his macho, exasperated Mississippi riverboat captain father (a great performance Ernest Torrence). He loves the daughter of a rival steamboat owner, and must prove himself to overcome his father’s contempt, his nemesis the girl’s father, and the forces of nature themselves.

Steamboat Bill Canfield runs the paddle steamer Stonewall Jackson, and J.J. King is his rich rival. Bill’s son (Buster) comes home on the train after four years in college in Boston. He sports a beret, a moustache, and a ukulele. Father soon dispenses with all these items. Trying to teach him the business of running a boat leads to disaster upon disaster.

Soon Bill’s boat is condemned as unsafe. He blames King, assaults him and is thrown in jail. Buster’s attempt to spring him goes sadly awry. Then a cyclone hits the town, pushing and pounding at Buster as the town disintegrates around him. It’s an apt metaphor for Keaton’s persona – one buffeted and borne along by the tide of an indifferent if not hostile universe, who learns to ride the wave and triumph at last.

The most memorable moment comes when the fa├žade of a house comes crashing down in the wind, missing Buster by inches by way of a small upper-story window. As Buster stands scratching his head, the front of the building behind him falls around him. Supposedly the wall weighed two tons, to keep it from warping as it fell. A nail marked the spot where Buster would stand. Half the crew walked away rather than film the scene. It is said that Keaton was in a negative frame of mind at the time, facing up to a failing marriage and an increased dependence on alcohol. It may have been a death wish recorded on film.

Once again, Keaton constructs a detailed universe in which he tries to fit, only to tear it all asunder at the end, giving him the space to assume a heroic role.

The movie was a box-office failure. After this film, Keaton’s independent production company was dissolved, and he signed up with MGM. This was to prove disastrous to his resources and freedom to create, dragging him down into mediocrity, which he overcame eventually due to hard work as a live performer and by quitting the booze.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. gives us Keaton at his best.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: The Cameraman.


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