Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) Director: Charles Reisner and Buster Keaton
Along the Mississippi River, a riverboat called the “King” floats into the harbor at River Junction Bank. The wealthy owner of this big fancy boat, Mr. J.J. King, boasts about how the “King” will run the old but lovable steamboat “Stonewall Jackson” out of business. The “Stonewall Jackson” is owned by local riverboat Captain William Canfield. However, Capt. Canfield receives a telegram that his son, Bill, will be visiting him. Mr. Canfield has not seen his son for many years and he hopes that his son has grown into a large and muscular man so that he can help with the steamboat business.
Bill (Buster Keaton) arrives via train, wearing fancy urban garb, donning a white carnation and an effeminate Parisian hat. His father is immediately shocked and dismayed at how silly and clumsy his son appears. Once again, in a Buster Keaton film we encounter the recurring theme of a son disappointing his father. Bill’s father takes it upon himself to transform his weakling son into a man. They head into town so that Bill can have a shave and be outfitted in new clothes, hopefully ones that don’t appear quite so foolish. In town, Bill meets the owner of the “King” and his lovely daughter, Kitty. The Kings are a high class family, wanting for nothing. However, J.J. King and Capt. Canfield are mutual enemies and they instruct their children to stay away from one another.
However, in the evening Bill sneaks away from his room to meet Kitty but he is caught. The next day, both fathers get into a brawl and Capt. Canfield is imprisoned. Bill tries to go break him out of jail but he is in unsuccessful (there are some hilarious gags here). Bill tries to sneak into jail for his father, but Bill winds up in a hospital. Suddenly the weather conditions change and a cyclone begins to emerge. Buildings begin to crash down and people are blown away. Cars are sent skidding down the road, and objects are sent barreling into people as the river dock breaks apart. What follows is a meticulously orchestrated, utterly iconic scene. The walls of the hospital come rocketing upward while Bill’s hospital bed comes flying down the road. For these incredible scenes, Buster Keaton actually used massive plane engines to create the illusion of severe wind conditions. Bill is blown into one chaotic situation after another –including an old theatre which grants Buster Keaton’s the chance to flex some of his old vaudevillian chops. At one point, a house lands on his head only for Bill to cartoonishly open the front door as the house comes collapses behind him. In another, he stands in the road while the side of a building comes crashing down around him, he is only saved by the third floor window which just so happens to land right where he stands (this iconic scene has been parodied innumerable times). In yet another scene, Bill grabs hold of a tree which is suddenly uprooted and is sent flying all over town. The technical ingenuity of this whole cyclone is the summit of Buster Keaton’s engineering skills.
Bill eventually rescues Kitty and his father who is trapped in a floating prison. It is Bill’s engineering prowess which saves the day. The film ends as he rescues the town’s minister much to the appreciation of all parties. At the end, Bill has earned the respect of his father and the love of Kitty.
The last of Buster Keaton’s independent films created under Joseph Schenck, Steamboat Bill, Jr. is a wonderful homage to the near-end of Buster Keaton’s golden years. Sadly, during filming, Keaton’s increased alcohol abuse allowed him to perform these highly dangerous stunts. In fact, in the famous scene where the wall comes crashing down around him, most of the staff and crew actually walked off the set rather than watch Buster Keaton possibly kill himself –in truth, Keaton used a real full-sized wall to perform the stunt! Amazingly, he survived to tell the tale. Steamboat Bill, Jr. was followed by Buster Keaton’s ill-fated MGM deal which coincided with his messy public divorce and the coming demise of silent cinema. Steamboat Bill, Jr. is a reminder of his glory days –an era where one stone-faced clown could cheat death over and over in a string of carefully-crafted, mathematically-calculated gags. Buster Keaton’s world gives the illusion of anarchy but, in truth, it is actually a well-ordered vaudevillian stage framed only by Buster Keaton’s cinematic lens. With trains, steamboats, and cameras, Buster Keaton offers us an engineer’s dreamland –and what a marvelous world it is!