An astonishing comedy that is still as fresh as the day it was made
Take two rival steamboat operations, each owned by a controlling and adversary father, have their son and daughter fall in love, and you have the groundwork for a compelling film. Add Buster Keaton into the mix and you end up with a cinematic masterpiece. This uproarious silent comedy is delightfully surprising from start to finish - and downright hysterical. Along with the stellar comedy of Keaton, it is expertly directed, shot, acted, and filled with humor and emotion. It also features an unbelievable climax which includes one of cinema’s most iconic comedy gags. It doesn’t get much better than this, which is why “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” is hailed as one of cinema’s masterworks, and has even made it onto several Top 100 best films lists. Don’t be put off by the fact that it’s silent - you’ll be making a lot of noise while watching it..
“Steamboat Bill, Jr.” is the story of “Bill, Jr.”, (I"ll call him "Junior" for the sake of confusion) played by Keaton. He's a young, somewhat meek man from Boston who arrives in Mississippi to reunite with his burly, gruff father “Bill”, the owner of a steamboat whom he hasn’t seen since he was a baby. At its core, this entertaining tale is the story of a boy wanting to impress his father. While trying to impress, his father's steamboat is being threatened by the town’s corrupt tycoon named “King”. Also while visiting, “Junior” happens to run into and fall for “Kitty” (also visiting from Boston), who turns out to be “King’s” daughter - a relationship both fathers forbid. The whole thing becomes one riotous mess, and a vehicle to showcase mounds of humor and Keaton’s extraordinary comedic talents. I still laugh out loud with amazement every time I watch this film.
One can’t talk about “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” without speaking about Buster Keaton, as the two go hand in hand. This actor, director, and writer is highly regarded as among the few true cinematic geniuses - ever. Keaton was nicknamed “The Great Stone Face” for his unmatched deadpan humor. Although he doesn't change his facial expression much (and doesn't smile), we always know exactly what he's feeling and we empathize. That is a large part of Keaton’s magnificence. Combine it with his unique and dumbfounding physicality and you have a film legend. He was brilliant and amusing at the same time. Keaton was one of four kings of silent film comedy, the others being Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Harry Langdon. What separated Keaton from everyone was his uncanny, superhuman physicality. No one moves like Buster Keaton. He did all his own stunts, attacking them with a death-defying fearlessness I have yet to see duplicated. With supreme body control and agility he makes things that don’t look humanly possible look effortless (and painless), and we are treated to a tour de force of his physical antics in “Steamboat Bill, Jr.”. At one point he is jumping back and forth between the two steamboats (even while fighting), with such dexterity and precision, one can only wonder how anyone can do that let alone make it look so perfect. Most of Keaton’s physicality is displayed during the famous wind-storm climax that ravages the town for the last fifteen minutes or so of the film. One startling moment happens while “Junior” is being blown by gale force winds. He enters the shot on his head, flips over and lands seated pretty much in the center of the frame. While doing this outrageous stunt, Keaton hits his mark and remains stone faced the entire time. It is truly astounding. Another comedy gag I must mention (which also happens during the climax) is a shot of Keaton standing in front of a house as the wind blows the entire face off the house. It falls over him, and he is saved only because he happens to be standing in the spot of the window. That often imitated scene has become of the most iconic in cinema. I guess I should point out that while Keaton is doing all these stunts, he is funny - incredibly funny. Even the way he runs is funny. Let’s not forget this was made well before special effects, so what you see him do on-screen he actually did. He was injured from time to time in his career with broken bones and some near death close calls, and he even broke his neck (which he didn’t realize until years later).
While his physicality is unsurpassed, it is not the only aspect to Keaton’s genius. In the silent era he was a creative guru who controlled the creation of his films, giving them his personal mark. Keaton would come up with an idea, a beginning, some sort of ending, and develop the rest as he filmed. While Charles Reisner is the credited director and Carl Harbaugh the credited screenwriter of “Steamboat Bill, Jr.”, Keaton co-directed and had major input with the script, as he had complete creative control. It was and is, after all, a Buster Keaton film. One of the most influential and important people in cinema, Keaton pushed the boundaries of the medium using skilled and often creative framing, pacing, extended shots to capture all the action, breaking the fourth wall (looking directly at the camera), and other innovations. He created a cinematic language that paved the way for the movies of today, all while knowing exactly where to place the camera for full comedic effect.
Buster Keaton, who plays “William (Bill) Canfield, Jr”, was born to two vaudevillian actors. He became part of their act when he was three, and they became “The Three Keatons”. He would play a misbehaving child and his father would physically throw him around the stage, into the scenery, into the orchestra pit, and sometimes even into the audience. There was a handle sewn into the back of his costume so his father could lift and throw him more easily. Obviously, that routine would never fly today (pun intended). Somehow Keaton never seriously got hurt, and he quickly learned that the more serious he was, the bigger the laugh - thus, the birth of his “stone face”. By the time he was four, he was a vaudeville star. He learned from a very young age how to fall, land, and be physical while making people laugh. My guess is it also made his body quite agile and used to taking a beating. At twenty one years old he moved to New York and ran into a friend who introduced him to silent film comedy star, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. Buster watched Arbuckle filming his comedy shorts, and that’s when he decided to go into the movies. Keaton's first film appearance was in the 1917 Arbuckle short, “The Butler Boy”. He would continue to appear with Arbuckle in short films, and the two relocated to California and worked together in just over a dozen shorts. While working with Arbuckle, Keaton soaked up everything about filmmaking. In 1920 the pair split as Arbuckle stopped making shorts and began making features. Arbuckle's studio became Buster Keaton Productions, and Keaton began writing, directing and starring in his own short films, beginning with the fabulous “One Week”. Many of his shorts are classics in themselves, including “Cops”, “The Goat”, “The Scarecrow”, and “The Boat”. In 1920 he also appeared in his first feature film, “The Saphead”. 1923 marked the beginning of Keaton’s most important period and films, in which he made ten films which he had creative control over, beginning with “The Three Ages” and ending with our film. During this period he experimented, and the result was the creation of several films considered masterpieces, including “Sherlock Jr.”, “The Navigator”, "Our Hospitality", "Seven Chances”, and what is commonly regarded as his crowning achievement, “The General”. Keaton has several trademarks in addition to his stone face. Another signature became the porkpie hat he wore in many of his films, beginning with his shorts. He makes fun of it in “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” in a very fun Easter Egg. In the scene when he is trying on hats with his father, at one point the salesman puts Keaton’s iconic porkpie hat on “Junior”, after which “Junior” immediately removes it while giving a quick look of horror. Keaton also loved gadgets and modes of travel, and you will often find him on bicycles, in cars, a balloon, and even a dog-pulled chariot! But you will mostly see boats (as in this film) and his great love, trains. By the time “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” was being filmed, Keaton was persuaded to sign with MGM studios against the advice of several of his colleagues (including Charlie Chaplin). He must have known it was a mistake to stop being independent, as there are several accounts of him being depressed on the set - in particular when he did the famously dangerous wall falling stunt mentioned above. The wall was an actual two ton wall, and if he missed his mark even by a few inches he would have been killed instantly. It has been said that during the filming of that stunt he didn’t care if he lived or died. He's also been quoted as saying it was the most thrilling moment of his career. I’ll let you decide which (or both) you’d like to believe. The MGM deal turned out to be disastrous for Keaton. MGM hired Buster Keaton the movie star, but not the filmmaker. He quickly lost control of the films in which he appeared, and you can tell. Some are a bit painful to watch as he looks quite unhappy. “The Cameraman” was his first MGM film, and while not up to Keaton standards, it’s among his best during this period. He was also paired in three films with comedian Jimmy Durante, including "What! No Beer?” in 1933 - Keaton’s last starring role in an American film. By 1933 he was drinking heavily, depressed, divorced, suffered major financial losses, was fired by MGM, and was hospitalized due to a breakdown. After his recovery Keaton never again had a drinking problem (and ended up marrying his nurse in a marriage lasting just over two years). He continued working mostly in short films and in small or cameo parts in features including "In the Good Old Summertime", "Li'l Abner", "Around the World in 80 Days”, and most famously “Sunset Boulevard”, as well as opposite Charlie Chapin in Chaplin’s 1952 film, “Limelight” (the only time the two legends appeared together on-screen). Through the 1950s and early 60s, Keaton appeared mostly on television, including appearances on “Candid Camera”, and in a series of beer commercials - both of which gave him an opportunity to perform silent comedy gags. In the 1960s he would again appear briefly in features, including "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World", and several of the very popular Annette Funicello bikini movies, including "Beach Blanket Bingo”. He also appeared in a few international films and shorts. In his career he would work in 150 film and TV shows. During his heyday, his films didn’t make as much money as Lloyd or Chaplin, and his contribution to cinema wasn’t fully realized until the last years of his life, when the films from his golden 1920’s period were rediscovered. In 1960 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded him an honorary Oscar for his “unique talents which brought immortal comedies to the screen”, and just months before he died he appeared at the Venice Film Festival and received their longest recorded standing ovation. In 1992, “The International Buster Keaton Society” (also known as “The Damifinos”) formed and is still in existence today to foster and perpetuate an appreciation and understanding of the life, career, and films of Buster Keaton. He was voted #21 of the men on the AFIs list of the "50 Greatest American Screen Legends”. Keaton was married three times, including his marriage to Natalie Talmadge (sister of silent screen stars Constance and Norma Talmadge), and his final, very happy marriage of 25 years to Eleanor Keaton until his death. Buster Keaton died in 1966 at the age of 70.
I’ll briefly mention the other three main actors, as they are a large part of this film:
Ernest Torrence is perfection as “William ‘Steamboat Bill’ Canfield, Sr.”. Because his performance as the imposing bully of a father is so convincing, he makes Keaton’s “Junior” that much more empathetic, This 6’4” Scottish actor appeared largely in silent films, usually as the villain. He appeared in 51 films, and among his other notable roles are “Peter” in Cecil B. DeMille's 1927 "King of Kings", and as "Clopin" in the classic 1923 silent version of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" starring Lon Chaney. He was married once. Ernest Torrence died in 1933 at the age of 54.
Marion Byron plays “Kitty King”, the daughter of “Bill’s” rival. She does a great job adding energy and romance to the film. An actress who never quite attained stardom, “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” was her first film and her big break. Byron would go on to appear in 45 films (including shorts) through 1938, most notably the musicals "Show of Shows" and "Broadway Babies”. She was married once until her death. Marion Byron died in 1985 at the age of 74.
Tom McGuire plays the malevolent “John James King”, “Bill’s” rival. He is very believable as the man who practically owns the town and wants to ruin “Bill”. British born Tom McGuire was a character actor with a career extending from the silent era into sound, with over 170 credits (mostly in bit and uncredited roles). Among his notable films are “City Girl”, and “Lights of New York”. Tom McGuire died in 1954 at the age of 80.
If you’ve never seen a Buster Keaton film you are in for a marvelous surprise! This film is a joy from beginning to end. And if you’ve already see Keaton I invite you to revisit this film, as this classic generates laughter time after time, after time. Enjoy “Steamboat Bill, Jr.”!
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