Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill Jr (1928) takes place on the banks of the Mississippi River. Steamboat Bill funnily enough runs a steamboat on the river. His son, played by Buster Keaton, turns up following the arrival on the scene of a much larger steamboat, owned by the ‘big business’ cipher J.J. King who aims to render Bill’s boat obsolete. Father and son have not met since Jr was a small child. Bill, who happens to look a lot like Popeye, is downcast when he sees his son, considering him to be effeminate, weak and overall a bit of a dandy. Jr is keen to impress, but struggles with his father’s clear disapproval of various aspects of his persona, which he has formed far away from the river at school in Boston. The ashamed Bill attempts to get Jr to get a more suitable hat, rather than the beret that he chooses. This takes place in a rather humourous scene which self knowingly plays with the notion of Buster’s usual porkpie hat, continually making the audience believe that that is the hat he will end up in. It is a really very clever and modern scene actually.
The film is fast paced, even for a Buster Keaton film, zipping from one scene to another. Like another of Keaton’s famous features Our Hospitality (1923), the story is a classic Romeo and Juliet one. A lady friend of Jr’s from school happens to be the daughter of Bill’s arch rival King. Enter the star-crossed lovers and warring families with King and Bill banning their progeny from becoming involved with the others’. It is a little strange though because after a fair bit of early focus, this romantic narrative thread falls by the wayside as Bill is placed in jail (at the hands of King) and Jr has to attempt to help him escape. Through this period Jr does eventually earn the respect of his father, and the love story thread is picked up as he rescues Marion and her father King from the hurricane that rages at the film’s finale.
The story is a little slow, and it lacks the depth of The General (1927) or some of the nuanced comedic stylings of Our Hospitality. But thankfully, no one moves like Keaton. He is such a wondrous physical performer, the way he trips, falls and throws himself about. Rightly known for his big set pieces, Steamboat Bill Jrfeatures one that is very close to his greatest. In the middle of a hurricane, the entire front of a building falls on top of Buster. Luckily enough though, he is perfectly positioned and slips straight through the attic window as the building falls over him. It is a scene that has to be seen to be believed, and just reminds you how much films and stunts have changed over cinema’s 100 and a bit years. No doubting the safety improvements that have been made are incredibly important. But there is nothing like seeing a performer risking life and limb onscreen for your entertainment. These scenes of the hurricane destroying the township on the banks of the Mississippi are really impressive, utilising both miniature work and the destruction of full size sets. Also using some pretty powerful wind machines as well – Keaton has recounted how one of them blew a truck right into the river during filming.
There is a lot of joy in Steamboat Bill Jr and it is a very funny movie, but it lacks some of the panache and lasting resonance that characterises Keaton’s The General and many of his iconic short films. If this came from any other filmmaker I would no doubt rave about it. But it is unfortunate that despite being a fantastic film with a few utterly astounding Keaton stunts, Steamboat Bill Jr does live a little in the shade of his other work. By no means bad though, and still worth a little over an hour of your time.
Verdict: Stubby of Reschs
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