Steamboat Bill, Jr. [50 Films Older Than Me #45]

A while ago (indeed, almost a whole year ago), it was my birthday! And to add to all the real life goals and challenges that that brings, I’ve created at least one as it relates to movies and this blog–watch a film I’ve never seen before which came out in each year of the fifty years before I was born, and then write a bit about it.  This is Post #45.

Spoilers ahead.  

Steamboat Bill, Jr.

Directed by Charles Reisner and Buster Keaton (uncredited)

Release Year:  1928 (42 years before I was born).

What it is about:  William Canfield, Jr., a young man who has just finished his studies, pays a visit to his father who he has not seen for many years. His father runs the old steamboat, Stonewall Jackson, which seems doomed to financial failure in the face of a bigger and newer service run by J.J. King. King’s daughter Kitty is young Bill’s friend from college, but the antagonism between the two families becomes an obstacle to them being together romantically. Bill’s father is put in prison for assaulting King when he blames him for having his boat deemed unsafe. Bill attempts to break his father out of prison and nearly succeeds, but winds up in the hospital instead. A mighty cyclone hits, and Bill ends up saving Kitty, King and his own father, and is hailed a hero.

Starring Buster Keaton as William Canield Jr., Ernest Torrence as his father, Marion Byron as Kitty, Tom McGuire as King, and Tom Lewis as Tom Carter, the “first and last mate” of the Stonewall Jackson.

My impressions of this movie before I watched it:  I am familiar with Buster Keaton and his oeuvre, and I had seen this movie’s most famous stunt (detailed below).

Reality: I fell in love with Buster Keaton many years ago when I had the chance to watch The General in a cinema with live music accompaniment. Since then I have held the performer and his work in high esteem, but there are still many of his films that I have never seen. I chose Steamboat Bill, Jr. for this series because of the famous stunt referenced below–a visual I had seen many times but did not know the context for.

Like many of Keaton’s films, this one starts off a bit slowly as things plod along setting up the general situation. In this case, the Stonewall Jackson is an aging paddle steamer which is floundering in the face of the newer and richer competition from the wealthy J.J. King. The stubborn old captain, “Steamboat Bill” Canfield vows to keep running his boat even if he is the only customer. When he receives a telegram telling him that his son, not seen for many years, is coming to pay him a visit, Canfield expects a burly, athletic man like himself. What he gets instead is Buster Keaton.

Keaton was certainly athletic, as any fan knows, but he is comically small compared to his father, and full of big-city manners and an air of self-importance. His father of course is embarrassed by the sight of him but does his best to show him how his boat works.

The tension between them only gets worse when the daughter of his rival shows up and turns out to be his son’s college friend. Canfield and King become briefly allied in their efforts to break up any developing romance between their children.

And for the first half or more of the movie, the story and humor is all built around these dynamics. And there are certainly moments where I was laughing but I found the whole thing somewhat slow-going. The jokes are there but they aren’t especially plentiful or clever, and of course the actual human drama is pretty slight–although I appreciated a dramatic moment where Bill Junior decides not to leave town so he can save his father from prison, and even rips up his ticket. It’s also nicely framed, with Bill not knowing that Kitty is watching him from a distance.

Indeed, it’s here that things picked up for me. There follows an extended sequence where Bill attempts to give his father a loaf of bread that has tools baked into it, against the wishes tools of his father, who is still angry at him.

It’s a scene that takes several minutes and so has time to breathe and develop, and its between the father and son which is the movie’s core relationship. All of that makes it an engrossing little mini-story to follow, and there’s a particularly clever bit where Bill is able to fake a rock being thrown through the sheriff’s window. It also includes one of the movie’s funnier intertitles–“I know what it is–you are ashamed of my baking,”–and culminates with Bill unexpectedly knocking the sheriff out by punching him in the stomach.

All of this ultimately gives way to the movie’s climax, and that’s where the magic really happens. The last fifteen minutes of the movie is the cyclone, where Keaton and Charles Reisner have stacked up all their most impressive stunts. Suddenly, cars are being blown down the street, buildings are falling to pieces all over the place, and boats are being smashed to pieces.

Young Bill survives as an entire hospital that is lifted into air right over him, and then as his bed just starts blowing down the street. Keaton does one impressive fall and tumble after another in a sequence so monumentally impressive and funny that it makes up for any moments of slowness in this and about six other movies. They even find room for some vaudeville stunts, a bit that proves that ventriloquist dummies were creepy even in the 1920’s, and even for Keaton to ride a tree through the air.

And then there is the stunt. A single brief gag that only takes about seven seconds of the movie, but is perhaps Keatons all-time most memorable, where an entire building facade comes loose and seems to be poised to fall on Bill, only for his body to narrowly miss being crushed by perfectly positioned where an open window frame hits the ground.

It’s unbelievable to look at, and is all the more impressive (or perhaps, ridiculous) for being as close to “real” as it could be. In other words, it was a real wall from a real building (weighing about two tons, I’ve read) that really fell.

Apparently, Keaton’s mark to know where to stand was a couple of nails, and the window had been designed to give him about two inches clearance on every side. Keaton’s wisdom in doing the stunt is certainly questionable (it was said he was going through many personal problems that may have made him more reckless) but the result is one of the most amazing seven seconds of cinema that I can imagine.

I like the cast of the movie. Buster Keaton of course is the master of the befuddled everyman–whenever anything confusing or unexpected took place, he has an oft-mimicked / never duplicated stone-faced expression which allows the audience to project all their surprise and wonder. Marian Byron is cute and charming as Kitty (although apparently she couldn’t swim, so Keaton’s sister Louise plays Kitty during the bits where he is rescuing her during the cyclone). And Ernest Torrence is great as Bill’s father–he’s an actor with tons of character carved into his face, and he and Keaton make great foils for each other.

So…when you get down to it, what did I think? Steamboat Bill, Jr. took a while to get going for me but by the time it got to the end it was charging forward at 100 miles per hour, and delivering awesome results.

See here for the Master List

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