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Buster Keaton was a lunatic. He had to have been. The stunts he was
able to pull off in this movie leave me questioning his sanity. This
film has moments where you won't believe his stunts weren't done via
some nifty camera forgery. It's just amazing that his stunts were
accomplished while one camera(yes, just one) was aimed at a spot that
was marked for Buster to hit. This precision had to be met or death and
disaster could follow. This was most apparent in the cyclone scene with
the wall of a house that fell to the ground. Any deviation by an inch
from the mark and a house could fall on top of Buster's head. I had to
watch that scene over and over again. This film is filled with great
gymnastics from Buster, as he did hit all of his marks. Although this
movie has some of Buster's best comedic gymnastics, there are a couple
of memorable scenes of pantomime. There's the scene near the beginning
of the film when Buster is trying on an array of hats for his father.
Buster looks right into the camera as if looking into a mirror, just a
great effect. And later there's another scene where Buster tries to
break his father out of jail by pantomiming the instructions of escape
by using only his hands and a loaf of bread. By the end of the film
you'll be marveling at Buster's dexterity while he operates the
steamboat by climbing up and over or jumping down and around the ship,
running the ship by himself and with the help of a few helpfully placed
ropes. This movie has it all for Buster fans. 10/10.
Reading the back of the video or DVD case can be misleading as it made
this movie to be one in which Buster learns from his dad the ropes of
running of steamboat. Well, in the end it looks like he did just that,
but his "training" was about less than a minute in this 71-minute film.
The rest of the movie is about other things, such as Buster - reunited with a Dad who never knew him - meeting his father, getting a new outfit (especially a different hat), beginning a romance with the daughter of the competing steamboat operator, later trying to get his father out of jail, on and on.
The part that makes this one of the more memorable silent films of all time is the hurricane segment near the end. There are some amazing scenes in that, including a very famous one in which an entire side of house falls on Buster, who escapes without injury because an open door on the house is exactly where Keaton is standing. He had not been exactly on the right mark, the famous comedian could have been seriously injured in that stunt. The man had guts, that's for sure.
Anyway, our hero does show in the end that he learned a few things about navigating the boat as he rescues all the major characters following the hurricane. Great stuff and a suspenseful finish.
STEAMBOAT BILL JR. (United Artists, 1928), directed by Charles F.
Reisner, stars Buster Keaton in his third independent production
following THE GENERAL (1926) and COLLEGE (1927), his most effective and
daring, as well as a premise that personifies him best. It is a fine
character study as well, and since Keaton is quite a character, the
role he plays is that of a weakling of a son who tries to impress his
burly, strong-willed father, wonderfully played by veteran actor Ernest
Story: Set in River Junction, Mississippi, William Canfield (Torrence), better known as "Steamboat Bill," owns a riverboat called "The Stonewall Jackson." He has a rival, John James King (Tom Maguire), a wealthy citizen, who attempts to cause Bill's financial ruin with his new river packet called "King" after himself. Canfield receives a telegram from Boston that his son, whom he hasn't seen since he was a baby, is arriving in town by train. Excited about the union, he is soon disappointed when he finds Bill Canfield Jr. (Buster Keaton) not to be the physical built of himself but a weakling sporting checkered clothes and beret, a mustache and playing a ukulele. Also returning home to River Junction is Mary (Marion Byron), King's daughter, whom Bill has already met while attending college. Because Bill and Mary love one another and Canfield and King have become rivals, the fathers attempt to keep these two apart.
A story with enough ingredients for comedy. With the love plot resembling that of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," there is no tragedy involved, but methods of the youths trying to get together at times without the knowledge of their feuding fathers. Scenes involving the meek Keaton and the rugged Torrence are extremely funny, their introduction being with Torrence at the train station to meet the son he hasn't seen in years, to be identified with a carnation, only to find practically every man at the station is wearing one. The element of surprise in finding his son not to be what's expected has been reworked numerous times on screen, the most famous being Universal's comedy-western, DESTRY RIDES AGAIN (1939), where the eagerly awaited sheriff believed to be a strong physical type only to arrive in town only to be a "horse of a different color" (James Stewart). Like Stewart's character, Keaton is considered a fool by many, but on the contrary, he's the opposite, in fact, intelligent when intelligence is needed, especially when it comes to rescuing his father from drowning in a jail cell during a flood that nearly has water covering over his head. Other scenes worth mentioning include father taking son by the hand like a small child to the barber shop to eliminate his mustache, and later to the clothing store where father attempts to change son's image into something more manly. But the high point is that of natural disasters of cyclone and flood that nearly wipes away the town, with the confused Bill actually becoming the hero during all this confusion, leading to the most celebrated scene where Keaton is seen standing in an empty street staring at the damaged surroundings, with the entire facade of a house falling down on him, with the open window frame of the house passing safely over his body, leaving him unharmed. A very dangerous stunt, which might have proved fatal, done without the technology of special effects or computers nearly succeeds in outshining Harold Lloyd's thrill comedies of the day. This alone needs to be seen to be believed. Even when all this is over, there are even more elements of surprises. Watch for them.
STEAMBOAT BILL JR. was introduced to public television around 1983 as part of a weekly series known as SPROCKETS, accompanied by a standard piano score. Later revived to cable television, it was then seen on American Movie Classics starting in 1995 where it was part of that station's annual film preservation series, and ending its run there in 1999. The movie was later presented on Turner Classic Movies in 2001 where it is played as part of its "Silent Sunday Nights." Initially accompanied with an excellent piano score by William Perry from the Paul Killiam collection, TCM sadly discontinued using this print in December 2004 in favor of a restored copy (which is fine) accompanied by scoring that happens to be one the worst ever composed for a silent movie. A pity because STEAMBOAT BILL Jr. is such a fine and exciting comedy, worthy to film students to studying the art and genius of Buster Keaton. Fortunately someone must have been in agreement with the bad scoring considering a new organ score was used in a crisp pint that aired June 21, 2005. Though scoring for STEAMBOAT BILL Jr. has varied in either VHS or DVD formats over the years, personally, the William Perry piano accompaniment is the best of its kind.
The last true Buster Keaton classic from the silent era, and surprisingly something that didn't do financially well when distributed in theaters. In fact, it's been said that United Artists withheld its release for almost a year. Today STEAMBOAT BILL Jr. is critically acclaimed and hailed as one of Keaton's masterpieces, a notch below THE GENERAL but an improvement over COLLEGE. Thanks to television revivals and video/DVD, Buster Keaton comedies such as this should never go out of style. (***)
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Steamboat Bill, Jr. was the first Keaton film I saw in a theater. I'd
seen all of his silent films on video and thought nothing could
increase my admiration for them, but the reaction of the packed house
at New York's Film Forum blew me away. The audience roared with almost
uninterrupted laughter, breaking into spontaneous applause whenever
Buster did something particularly clever or heroic. This experience
confirmed for me that Steamboat Bill, Jr. belongs with Keaton's
masterpieces, and it might be his funniest feature film. From the
low-key opening to the spectacular finale, not a moment is wasted.
Like much of Keaton's best work, this is a piece of Americana, set in the fictional Mississippi town of River Junction. Steamboat Bill (Ernest Torrence) is a towering, crusty captain of a battered old boat, struggling to survive the competition from a "floating palace" owned by J.J. King, the richest man in town. Bill is expecting a visit from his son, whom he hasn't seen since infancy, and who has been in college in the East. "I bet he's taller'n me!" he crows, and we think: uh-oh. Sure enough, when Buster appears, not only is he petite, he's kitted out with a striped blazer and polka-dot tie, a beret, a ukulele, and a ludicrous little moustache dabbed on his lip. Their reunion is something less than joyful. Young Willie is thrilled to find that his girlfriend from Boston is also in townunfortunately, she's King's daughter. Romeo and Juliet, anyone?
Craggy Ernest Torrence, who specialized in hissable villains, is a superb foil for Buster, serving as both the film's "heavy" and as the object of Buster's efforts to earn approval. At the other end of the height scale is tiny, vivacious Marion Byron, just sixteen at the time, and an effective love interest. The first half of the film follows the clash between gruff, manly father and effete son. Willie is quickly relieved of his moustache and college duds. In one highlight, he tries on an array of hats, using the camera as a mirror and showing off an equally diverse array of subtle facial expressions, culminating in comic horror when Buster's trademark porkpie hat is placed on his head. Willie's idea of "work clothes for the boat" is a dashing naval uniform; while strutting on deck he trips, stumbles and collides with everything possiblewatch for one of Buster's greatest pratfalls when a coil of rope is pulled from under him and he dives forward and spins around on the back of his neck. After he sneaks out at night to visit King's daughter, his enraged father gives him a ticket back to Boston. But before Willie can leave, his father is arrested following an altercation with King, and Junior vows to get Senior out of jail.
A storm is brewing when Willie arrives at the jail, carrying a loaf of bread for his father. Bill wants nothing to do with his son, whose attempts to convey that there are tools hidden in the loaf, without letting the jailer catch on, culminate in a brilliant little pantomime in which Buster, with just his eyes and his fingers, acts out a prison-break. Finally the tools fall out of the soggy bread and clatter to the floor, prompting the movie's funniest title card. Willie looks at them with innocent surprise and says: "That must have happened when the dough fell in the tool box."
In the end, Senior remains in jail while Junior winds up in the hospital. The storm has by now become a cyclone, and thus begins the incomparable finale. When the entire hospital building is ripped from its foundations, Willie ventures dazed into the storm. The wind is so strong that he leans at a 45 degree angle when he tries vainly to walk into it. Houses collapse into splinters. In a haunting scene, Willie takes refuge in a half-ruined theater, where he encounters ghosts of Buster's vaudeville childhood. The whole cyclone sequence is unsurpassed in its surreal and violent beauty. Finally Willie returns to the boat and manages to pilot it himself, vaulting up and down the decks like Douglas Fairbanks and more than proving his manly worth as he comes to the rescue of the other characters.
During the making of Steamboat Bill, Jr., Buster's producer Joseph Schenck informed him that he was dissolving the independent Keaton studio and handing him over to MGM. The crass commercialism and regimented working style at MGM would crush Buster's creativity and spirit, spitting him out five years later as an unemployable alcoholic. It's almost impossible to believe that this inspired, hilarious, warm-hearted film was made under such a cloud. Buster did say later that if he hadn't been so depressed about his situation (his marriage was on the rocks too), he would not have undertaken the most dangerous stunt of his career, when he stands still while the entire front of a building crashes down over him, and he's saved because he's standing in the path of a window frame. Buster's life depended on his hitting a position marked on the ground; if he'd been a few inches off, the façade would have squashed him like a bug. His co-director couldn't stand to watch the scene being filmed, and the cameraman later told his son that he shot the scene with his eyes closed. On-screen, the effect is miraculous and oddly calm, a triumph of geometry. It's an indelible image, and a perfect symbol of a man who ultimately refused to be crushed.
In the riverside town of River Junction, Captain William Canfield
(Ernest Torrence) has an old steamship and disputes the passengers with
the powerful banker John James King (Tom McGuire), who has a brandy new
passenger vessel. William is informed that his unknown son William
Canfield Jr. (Buster Keaton) will arrive by train from Boston to visit
him. When Willie arrives, William trains him to work with him in his
ship. However, Willie meets his friend Marion King (Marion Byron), the
daughter of James King, and they date each other, against the will of
their fathers. When a hurricane reaches River Junction, Willie rescues
his father and his future father-in-law from the river.
"Steamboat Bill Jr." has a silly but funny beginning, and an amazing hurricane sequence, with very bold scenes. The timing and the physical capability of Buster Keaton are very impressive, and in the present days it is impossible to imagine shooting the scenes in the storm without the use of computer, so convincing they still are. From his biography, I have seen that he died of lung cancer, not in an accident as I might guess, meaning that he has survived to his risky scenes usual in most of his films. My vote is eight.
Title (Brazil): "Marinheiro de Encomenda" ("Sailor by Order")
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)
Romeo and Juliet, Buster Keaton Style
A series of mishaps and confusions make for a stream--or a river--of comic laughs. For my taste, Chaplin's sentimentalism trumps Buster Keaton's supposed modernity (such is film criticism), but this is fast, funny, and even awesome at its best. Sadly, my version (streaming on Netflix) had terrible soundtrack music.
The General is a better movie, overall, if you want an introduction to Keaton, and I assume it's no coincidence that he helped write and direct that, as Chaplin did his own films. There are enough great moments here--physical slips and gags, slapstick tricks, and fast turns of event to make it funny, don't get me wrong. But the slim plot takes too long, and it lacks the gravitas or true romance (even though the romance is on the surface by fifteen minutes or so in) that comedy often really depends on.
The great hat scene near the beginning has him try on his own famous hat and reject it, probably appropriate since this is his last film where he controls the movie (before his now notorious move to MGM). And when he pulls out the giant loaf of bread in the jail it's hilarious. But beyond funny plot elements, Keaton is most important, or most fun, for his stunts, so don't let the story and the thin supporting actors drag you down before he really gets going. And I don't mean to give short shrift to the leading woman, Marion Byron, who is perky and adorable, and the perfect siren for the perky and adorable Keaton.
The ending (the last twenty minutes) is pretty astonishing stuff. The effects with the wind and collapsing buildings, and the sheer marvels of acrobatic stunts by Keaton, are a thrill. This is what made him enduring, and don't miss it.
This is one of Keaton's best, just behind The General and Sherlock Jr. The
story is much more coherent without the surreality of Sherlock Jr., yet
more of Keaton's famous physical comedy that wasn't as prevelant in The
Everyone talks about the Wall Falling Scene. It is astounding to be sure, but for sheer belly laughs, watch the scene in which Bill Jr. is made to try on a multitude of hats by his father. Note that the one hat Bill Jr. seems to hate is Keaton's own signature "Porkpie" hat.
For the first time since he was a baby, an effete Buster Keaton comes home from Boston to visit his steamboat captain father, who's being troubled by the head of the other, finer steamboat, J.J. King. Of course King's daughter is home to visit her father, too! This completely delightful comedy glides right along, with outstanding physical comedy from Keaton. The lightness of the film is a benefit, as is the short 70m running time. There's no shortage of brilliant gags, my favorite being Keaton trying to get his jailed father to accept his homemade loaf of bread. ("That must of [sic] happened when the dough fell in the tool chest.") I loved the opening, as well, with Bill going along to different shops with his son in order to prepare him for the boat, and the hilarious scene in the hat shop as Junior eyes himself in the mirror as his father suggests these awful hats. The ending is just amazing (and dangerous!), as buildings fall apart due to an awful wind, with Buster doing a disappearing act and fighting to stand up straight and retain his composure. 8/10
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
'Steamboat Bill, Jr.' perhaps marked the end of a golden era for fans
of silent comedy genius Buster Keaton. The film was the last produced
by Keaton's independent production team before his move to MGM, from
which point, it is often said, his work had a marked decline in
quality. However, having not yet seen any of Keaton's later works, I am
still reserving my judgment. In any case, let us return to the
tour-de-force that is 'Steamboat Bill, Jr.'
The first half of this film is amusing, without being uproariously so, basically acting as a lead-up to the fantastic climactic storm sequence. The crusty, irritable captain of a battered steamboat (Ernest Torrence) receives a letter from his estranged son, informing him that he has plans to visit after so many years of separation. However, Steamboat Bill Sr's enthusiasm at having the assistance of a younger version of himself quickly evaporates when Steamboat Bill Jr (Keaton) arrives in town, sporting a delicate moustache and a sophisticated French artist's hat. Furious, Bill Sr sets about improving his son's image, only to find that his son won't accept any drastic changes quite so willingly. Bill Sr is even more aghast when he discovers that Keaton has already fallen in love Marion King (played by Marion Byron, just seventeen years old when the film was released), the pretty daughter of John James King (Tom McGuire), his arch enemy and main rival in the steam-boating business. This section of the film contains some clever sight gags including a hilarious routine involving a multitude of different hats but it noticeably lacks the frenetic energy and remarkable stunt-work that is the reason we love to watch Buster Keaton.
The second half of the film, however, is a completely different story. When a destructive cyclone bears down upon the small riverside town, all hell breaks loose, and young Steamboat Bill Jr finds himself wondering precariously through a crumbling labyrinth of abandoned streets and buildings. As he endeavours to rescue his father, who is locked up in the local jail, Keaton endures the savagery of the hurricane winds and flying debris, frequently dodging tumbling building walls. The storm is probably the most ambitious extended silent comedy sequence since Harold Lloyd scaled the skyscraper in 'Safety Last! (1923),' and it is remarkable how, in the absence of any elaborate special effects, it all seems so believable. The storm effects were created using six powerful Liberty-motor wind machines and a 120-foot crane, and directors Charles Reisner and Keaton (uncredited) unleashed the machines' wrath on $135,000 worth of breakaway street sets specially built for the film.
In one extremely memorable stunt which has since become legendary Keaton stands willfully still as an entire building wall tumbles down on top of him, his only saving grace being the attic window that was intricately positioned to pass over his body. Believe it or not, there were no optical tricks employed to pull off this shot; the wall was very much solid, and Keaton's death would have been very much real had he positioned himself incorrectly. Reportedly, half of the film's crew walked off the set on the day that this stunt was performed, lest it went horribly wrong and Keaton was killed. If all this wasn't remarkable enough, then consider this final fascinating observation: throughout the entire stunt, as the mammoth wall thunders down upon him and his entire life hangs in the balance, Keaton doesn't even flinch once
Call shenanigans on me as a movie-buff, but I've never fully completed
watching a Buster Keaton film (I've seen most of the General, but not
enough to give a fair estimate). What luck then to find Steamboat Bill
Jr in a 1 dollar bin, because Keaton does indeed live up to the hype!
Although it's still on my mind to say that Chaplin is the genius of
silent comedy, Keaton's wit in the staging of purely physical gags and
even in the wording of the title cards is top-notch and is a standard
to live up to for comedians today. It's got some things that are almost
textbook in the realm of slapstick (he's standing right under a house
about to fall on him, thank goodness for the window space!), but it's
also very original in some other ways, if only in little details. I
loved seeing the jail-house scene, where on sees the mood totally laid
out- suspense in the guise of mishaps involving a huge loaf of bread
loaded with tools to get Bill's father out of jail. The twists that
happen involving the jailman, and the escape, are worth checking out
the film alone.
Other little gags speak to how well Keaton could work gags big and small, be it riding a flying tree (!) to the water, or just trying to set up a plank to go to Stonewall Jackson's ship. There's even a sequence that I would show immediately to those wanting to get a sense of Keaton at his best, which actually involves as much reaction from those around him as Keaton himself, with the trying-on-the-hats sequence, where one is too small, or too big, or just too goofy. It almost goes way too over the top in the climax (how many things in town can Bill Jr go around in a tailspin, including winding up on what looks like a film set, ha!), but why carp? It's an exemplary form of showing a level of sophistication in doing dumb things, which includes sincerely dumb dialog ("Hey, my son's coming to visit, I haven't seen him since he was a baby" "I bet he's a grown lad now"). I'm sure the General will stay a Keaton classic for decades to come, but as far as purely accessible comedy on all levels Steamboat Bill Jr is hard to beat from the era.
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