When Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill Jr. was first released in 1927, it received mixed reviews and was not a success at the box office. Of course, time has a way of changing perceptions and the film is now regarded as one of the great silent film classics.
Steamboat Bill Jr. was featured this week at the Revue Cinema as part of its monthly “Silent Sundays” series. As with all screenings in this series, the audience received a taste of programmer and local film historian Eric Veillette‘s unique films from his personal archives to start the afternoon. On this Sunday, he screened an interesting silent travelogue film showing scenes in Toronto in the early 1930s called The Queen City.
The main feature Steamboat Bill Jr. is about a young man, Bill Jr. (Buster Keaton), returning from college to follow in his father Bill Sr.’s (Ernest Torrence) footsteps as a Mississippi steamboat captain. Bill Jr. has grown up in Boston and the two men don’t even recognize each other when he arrives back to work with his father. Once arrived in town, Bill Sr. has trouble adjusting to his son’s dress and manner, all stemming from his upbringing in an urban college environment. Bill Sr. fits him with new clothes for working on a steamboat. To complicate things, the girl Bill Jr. likes (Marion Byron) also returns home at this time, but he finds out her father runs his Bill Sr.’s main competition, a more upscale steamboat operation. Playing up the forbidden romance of the Capulets and the Montagues, the young lovers are forbidden to see each other. This in turn causes a further rift between father and son until the Bill Jr. is finally able to prove himself to the father.
The odd — but interesting — thing about Steamboat Bill Jr. is it spends very little time on any actual steamboats. Except for a brief sequence with Bill Sr. showing his son how to operate the boat, most of the action takes place on shore or when the boat is docked. The love story is a minor ruse, rather than a major plot element, and the story is really about the relationship between father and son.
The film was credited to director Charles Reisnerand and writer Carl Harbaugh, but by all personal accounts at the time, the film was co-written and directed by Keaton. The film has all the attributes that make his films so famous, especially in the final act when everything goes haywire during a major windstorm. If you have seen his classic short film One Week, you’ll get a good idea on how well Keaton can wreck a house.
Most silent comedies have iconic images that make them so famous — Harold Lloyd on the clock, Charlie Chaplin and the dance of the dinner roles — and Steamboat Bill Jr. is no exception. Even if you haven’t seen this film, you have probably seen the famous clip of Keaton escaping injury through a window while a house falls down around him. Keaton risked his personal safety with many of these stunts, leaving audiences both laughing and gasping at the same time. The wall in question was reportedly real, and if he had not be in the right position, would have likely killed him.
Buster Keaton would only make one more film, The Cameraman in 1928, before moving to MGM. Keaton gave up much of his creative control to the studio at the beginning of the sound era and his career never recovered. In the long run though, time was kind to Keaton’s work and this film along, with Sherlock Jr. and The General, rank among his finest work.