Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928). 69 minutes. Directed by Charles Reisner. Starring Buster Keaton (as William Canfield, Jr.), Ernest Torrence (as William “Steamboat Bill” Canfield, Sr.), Marion Byron (as Kitty King), Tom McGuire (as J. J. King), and Tom Lewis (as Tom Carter).
Buster Keaton’s late silent film Steamboat Bill, Jr. was inspired by the 1911 song “Steamboat Bill” and in turn inspired Disney’s well-known 1928 short cartoon “Steamboat Willie” (the first Disney short to feature both synchronized sound and the character Mickey Mouse). In other words, it grew out of a timely reference and inspired a cartoon that may now strike us as antique. But watching Steamboat Bill, Jr. recently, I was struck by how timeless it is. The movie is not considered to be Keaton’s masterpiece—that honor falls to The General (1926)—but it still features outstanding riverbank stunts and an impressive hurricane sequence, complete with the famous shot of a building facade falling over Keaton’s head. However, part of what makes this movie and so many other Keaton movies exceptional is not merely the thrill of watching dangerous stunts but the pleasure we take in Keaton’s composure and perfect physical comedy: his careful and precise movement, his deliberate postures, his exquisite timing. Keaton makes comedy seem beautiful, elegant—even when it involves falling off a ship or being picked off the ground by strong winds.
Along the banks of the Mississippi, William “Steamboat Bill” Canfield, Sr. operates a riverboat (the Stonewall Jackson) that has fallen into disrepair. His rival, the wealthy J. J. King, has just christened his own elegant new riverboat to much public acclaim. Bill, Sr. believes that the secret to his professional survival may lie in his now adult son, Bill, Jr., whom he has not seen in years but who is due to arrive in town from college in Boston. Father and son are reunited at the local train station, but Bill, Jr. is a slender youth wearing outlandish college clothes, sporting a pencil mustache, and carrying a ukulele—not the burly, ship-ready man his father was hoping for. Bill, Sr. also unfortunately learns that his son is in love with King’s daughter, Kitty, whom he knows from school.
Although their elders forbid them to see one another, the young couple attempts to reunite, albeit unsuccessfully. Kitty rejects Bill, Jr. Soon his father tells him to return to Boston. At the same time, the Canfield-King business rivalry reaches a climax and Bill, Sr. ends up in jail, from which his son attempts to free him. A terrible hurricane descends upon the river community and blows nearly everything away, but young Bill contrives a way to save Kitty, his father, and Kitty’s father, making amends with all three.
Steamboat Bill, Jr. is an example of a thoughtful Golden Age film that even today has a strong general appeal. The reason for this is multifaceted. Steamboat Bill, Jr.’s extensive charms and timeless quality are due in part to its setting: the action takes place in the year of the movie’s release, and we do not seem so different today from Keaton and the other actors we see in terms of styling, dress, and habits. But the plot elements are also fairly universal: rivalry between businessmen, differences between the wealthy and the poor, romance across class lines, children who do not please their parents, attempts to break out of jail, and the ability of heroic acts to change minds and resolve loose ends. The fact that Steamboat Bill, Jr. is silent to boot means that we can graft whatever language we like over these universal themes, and that helps the movie to feel eternally current.
And yet many other silent films with these qualities languish in obscurity. In contrast, Keaton’s reputation, both as a filmmaker and an actor, continues to thrive. One reason that we repeatedly turn to his movies while other silents are forgotten surely must be Keaton’s significant comic talents, but also, it must be admitted, his exceptional beauty. He has a petite form and a stunning visage, and famously he wears only a completely frozen, stony expression regardless of what happens to him in the film. (The name of the Canfield steamboat, Stonewall Jackson, is a wink at Keaton’s famous nickname, “The Great Stone Face.”) Early in his career, the comedian determined that he received a more enthusiastic response when he wore this expression in comic situations. Perhaps that was initially a choice to enhance the physical comedy he was undertaking with the rest of his body, but for me, watching his performance in Steamboat Bill, Jr. was very much about focusing in on that face itself. Keaton’s comedy is largely about his stoic expression, how distant it is from the wild tricks and stunts he undertakes, and its unchanging and unwavering look. Yet in its constancy, Keaton’s face manages to convey so much depending on the circumstances: sternness, sorrow, bewilderment, astonishment, disbelief, helplessness, perplexity, and calmness in spite of adversity.
I have read Keaton’s memoir, My Wonderful World of Slapstick, and I wish I could say it revealed more about how he made movies like Steamboat Bill, Jr., but it does not. It does, however, share a great deal about the development of his physical comedy, focusing extensively on Keaton’s childhood days in vaudeville, where he joined his parents on stage as a character they referred to as “The Human Mop.” His contribution to the family act from a young age consisted of rather violent and dangerous physical antics. Keaton says that he was never directly injured as a result of their performances, and we definitely get the sense reading tales of his stage act that he was exceptionally good at enduring extreme stunts and not getting hurt. It is an odd talent, to be sure, and there is no way his childhood act would ever be acceptable today; but especially in Hollywood’s silent period, when comedians often did their own stunts, Keaton must have been an especially exciting asset, someone through whom the often dangerous world of physical comedy could achieve new heights.
Still, watching him get tossed around is sometimes nervous making. Surely one goal of Keaton’s comedy is not only to amuse but to thrill, and surely one part of that thrill lies in knowing that we are watching an actor put himself in real danger. Some of Harold Lloyd’s stunts do the same thing. I am thinking in particular of Safety Last! (1923), where Lloyd scales a building and dangles from the arms of a large outdoor clock. But Lloyd intended to terrify us exceptionally in that sequence, which occurs in a film that is not particularly laden with stunts, whereas Keaton’s self-endangerment is a more consistent part of his entertainment strategy.
At times in Steamboat Bill, Jr., it is as if we are watching a cartoon where extreme and unbelievable activity occurs—the tree ripped out of the ground with Keaton clinging to it, the crazy rope rigging that he devises in no time flat to control the steamboat from above deck, the wild jumping on and off cars on the mainland. He seems magical, superhuman. But unlike characters in animated cartoons, who lack developed humanity, Bill, Jr. is fleshed out and personable. He suffers emotionally when separated from Kitty, and we can see how he longs to please his father. Although Keaton’s general screen persona is not nearly as sentimental as Chaplin’s Little Tramp, Keaton’s characters are sensitive, reserved, and slightly shy, in contrast with the dramatic events that affect them and that they undertake. Keaton is thus more likable than a cartoon. We can empathize with his character, and surely that must be one reason why Steamboat Bill, Jr. holds up so well nearly 100 years after its release.
Keaton’s spectacular acts were accompanied at a recent Pacific Film Archive screening by pianist Judith Rosenberg. The music was of her own devising, and she chose “The Black Bottom” (the 1920s flapper anthem) as her main theme, returning to it many times throughout the performance. This was particularly appropriate because the first title card in the movie reads “Muddy Waters,” and the first shot is a panorama of the Sacramento River (standing in for the Mississippi River). Throughout, her music echoed the visual cues that the movie provided for scene and mood changes, but rather than overpowering the action or trying to overtly influence the audience’s reaction to what it was seeing, the accompaniment enhanced what was taking place on screen without competing with it. It was an excellent compliment. The entire presentation was so engrossing that it was easy not to focus on the music—a feat that producer David O. Selznick, who was involved in scoring his sound pictures, would say is the hallmark of a good soundtrack. If you live in the Bay Area, I recommend that you find a reason to see a silent movie at the PFA someday soon.
For a general reflection on Keaton’s body of work, please see Roger Ebert’s overview.