“Steamboat Bill, Jr.” - Buster Keaton and Charles Reisner (1928)

Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) was the last brilliant product of his own, personally-managed production team, which had earlier produced an amazing string of silent classics that included Our Hospitality (1923), Sherlock Jr. (1924), The Navigator (1924), Seven Chances (1925), The General(1926), and The Cameraman (1928).  These films collectively place Keaton among the elite list of great film auteurs, and in fact, some leading critics even rank Keaton ahead of Charlie Chaplin as the greatest silent-era auteur [1,2].

Although Steamboat Bill, Jr. belongs to this list of Keaton’s finest films, it was unfortunately not a hit at the box office and drew only mixed reviews from the critics (The New York Times critic, Mordaunt Hall, for example, panned the film [3]).  Probably for these reasons, Keaton felt compelled to sign on with MGM studios for future productions, “despite the urgent warnings of Chaplin and Lloyd and his own misgivings” [4], and this led to his loss of production control and had disastrous consequences for his remaining career.  So with Steamboat Bill, Jr. we have one of the last examples of Keaton’s greatness.

With this film, we again have Keaton’s almost patented sequential mixture of narrative elements –
  • the quaint (Keaton seen as an earnest but almost hopelessly naive young man trying to play by the rules in an artificial and quaintly stilted social setting),
  • the slapstick (Keaton dealing with a relentless sequence of unexpected events and obstacles that result in one acrobatic pratfall after another), and
  • the maelstrom (the protagonists facing a culminating blizzard of existential threats that seem to stem from inscrutable natural forces).
However, in this film these narrative elements are somewhat disjointed and not so well fit together into a narrative whole.  While more than half of the film running time is devoted to various standalone slapstick scenes, it is the final fourteen minutes showing the maelstrom that stand out in everyone’s memories.  This was probably Keaton’s most dizzyingly delirious maelstrom sequence.

The story of the film concerns the unequal rivalry between two riverboat operators somewhere out in the American Midwest.  One of them, William "Steamboat Bill" Canfield, Sr. (played by Ernest Torrence), is a rough-hewn captain of an old and rundown paddle steamer.  His business is threatened by rival John King (Tom McGuire), a wealthy businessman who owns about every establishment in town and whose fancy brand new steamboat is overwhelmingly superior to Steamboat Bill’s.  This sets the stage for the three narrative sections that ensue. 

1.  Junior Arrives
In the opening sequences we are exposed to the quaint.  Steamboat Bill is eagerly looking forward to the arrival of his son, William Canfield, Jr. (Buster Keaton), who has been studying at college in the East (Boston) and whom he hasn’t seen since the boy was a toddler.  The father is expecting that his son will be a strapping tough guy like himself who can help in his boating operations, and he is dismayed to see on the boy’s arrival that he is a useless, effeminate fop who wears a beret.  Much of this first twenty or so minutes of the film are devoted to the father’s efforts to make Junior look more like a man – first by having his pencil mustache shaved off and then by replacing his beret with a more manly hat.

We also see in this sequence that John King’s daughter, Kitty (Marion Byron), has just also returned home from college in the East and that she and Junior had developed something of a romantic attachment while studying there.  Naturally, Junior and Kitty are thrilled to discover that they have wound up together in the same Midwestern city.  But their respective rivalrous fathers are dead set against seeing their relationship move forward.

2.  Working on the Steamboat
We now move to slapstick mode, as Junior tries to adapt himself to working on the family steamboat and live up to his father’s expectations.  At the same time, Junior is hoping to sneak over to the other boat so he can meet up with Kitty.  Some of the slapstick scenes shown here (several shots more than a minute in duration) must have been very carefully planned in order for all of the acrobatic Keaton’s coordinated movements to have worked out so perfectly.  But it all comes to naught, as Bill, Sr., finally gets fed up with his son’s uselessness and buys him a bus ticket to go back to Boston.

Just as Junior is about to leave, though, Bill, Sr., learns that his steamboat has been officially condemned by the authorities, and he assumes that John King is behind the move.  So, true to his character, Bill, Sr., physically attacks King and gets quickly thrown in jail.  Seeing what has happened, Junior decides not to leave town just yet and to see what he can do to get his father out of jail.

However, Junior’s efforts to sneak some breakout tools (hammer, wrench, etc.) to his father by concealing them inside a loaf of bread come to naught.  Although he does help engineer a temporary breakout, after some more slapstick, his father lands back in jail, and Junior winds up getting knocked out and sent to the hospital.

At this point, after all this slapstick, we have Bill, Sr., in jail and Junior in the hospital.  The outlook doesn’t look good, and the weather forecast is gloomy.

3.  The Storm
In fact now the weather takes over completely, and a horrific thunderstorm hits the town.  It has become time for the maelstrom.  Although these scenes shown here don’t show much narrative continuity, their depiction of cataclysmic annihilation stand out as some of Keaton’s most memorable visual images.  In particular, as we watch these shots of chaotic physical destruction, we can only marvel at how Keaton managed to stage them.  These were in the days before most special effects could be conjured up, and most of these destructive shots had to be executed in one take – reshooting a building collapse, for example, was presumably not an option.

As the storm mounts in ferocity, we first see people being blown off their feet, and then cars are shown being blown down the street from the intensity of the wind.  Then we see Steamboat Bill’s boat breaking away from the pier and being blown out into the river.  As things get worse, buildings are shown being destroyed by the force of the wind.

Over in the hospital where Junior is still lying unconscious, he finally awakens just as the entire hospital building is lifted off the ground and blown away.  Then, still lying in his hospital bed, he finds himself and the bed being blown down the street into more chaos.  This leads up to the most celebrated shot in the film.  Junior stands up just as the entire wall of a building falls and crashes down onto him – but he is saved because the open 2nd-floor window of that wall just happens to fit around and clear his body.  How Keaton had the courage and confidence to stage that shot is still amazing to me every time I see it.

Finally, the jail building, with Bill, Sr., still confined in his cell, gets blown into the river and starts slowly sinking.  And then at this point, Junior gets blown into the river, too, and he manages to swim over to his floating steamboat and scramble aboard. 

Now an astonishing transformation seems to come over Junior.  While still acting in his usual bumbling way, he somehow changes from being a useless fop to an unlikely heroic savior.  And there are plenty of people around him in desperate need of being saved.  As he looks out from the deck of his steamboat, he separately sees in the water his father in his sinking jail and Kitty clinging to another sinking building.  But the intrepid Junior breathtakingly manages to single-handedly steer his steamboat over to each of them and perform the rescue.  Then he rescues his father’s hitherto enemy, John King, who is also swimming in the water after his own steamboat has sunk.

All this leads to a joyful coming together and reconciliation on the part of John King, Bill, Sr., Kitty, and Junior.  With their lives having been saved, they all seem finally relieved.  But the ever-mindful Junior realizes that if he wants to marry Kitty right away, there is still one more person (the church pastor) he needs to save from the water. 

All in all, Steamboat Bill, Jr. is one of Buster Keaton’s most satisfying films.  The real narrative development in the story concerns, as it does in a number of Keaton’s tales, the transformation of the protagonist from a naive greenhorn into a highly competent get-things-done master.  And the film’s lasting image is that single-take falling-wall scene, in which the entire action of the falling wall is shown without an editorial cut.

  1. Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968, E. P. Dutton & Co. (1968), p. 62. 
  2. Kevin Brownlow, The Parade’s Gone By, (1968), passage quoted in Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson (eds.), “Buster Keaton ‘Our Hospitality’, 1923”, Goldenrod Handouts, Buffalo Film Seminars, (XXI:1), The Center for Studies in American Culture, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY (31 August 2010).    
  3. Mordaunt Hall, “THE SCREEN; A Gloomy Comedy”, The New York Times, (15 May 1928). 
  4. Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson (eds.), “August 31 ‘Buster Keaton Sherlock Jr.’ and ‘Steamboat Bill Jr.’ 1928", Goldenrod Handouts, Buffalo Film Seminars, (IX:1), The Center for Studies in American Culture, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY (31 August 2004). 

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