Friday, October 28, 2016
Charles Reisner and Buster Keaton | Steamboat Bill, Jr.
unsettled. wet and cloudy
by Douglas Messerli
Carl Harbaugh and Buston Keaton (uncredited) (screenplay), Charles Reisner and Buster Keaton (uncredited) (directors) Steamboat Bill, Jr. / 1928
Although the stated director of Steamboat Bill, Jr. is Charles Reisner and the writer is credited as Carl Harbaugh, the movie is clearly Buster Keaton’s affair, and it is his remarkable acting and his comically athletic pratfalls that make for some of the very best scenes of American silent film.
The story, a rather frail one, involves a war between two southern entities, William “Steamboat Bill” Canfield (Ernest Torrence) and a kind-of small town Donald Trump in the form of John James King (Tom McGuire), who owns most the city and has just launched a huge new Mississippi paddle ship which will surely destroy the local business of Canfield, who runs a dilapidated vessel that is later declared “unsafe.”
Into this cauldron, Canfield’s son, William (Keaton), returns after years away in Boston schools and, on the same day, King’s beloved daughter Kitty (Marion Byron), home on vacation.
From his years in Boston, evidently the son of a divorced mother, young William has grown up rather effete—at least in his father’s thinking—and is now completely unsuited to take over as “Steamboat Bill Jr.” Throughout the earliest part of the film, the Keaton figure undergoes a series of flabbergasting events with his impatient father and concerning his basic clumsiness around all things having to do with the boat’s instruments and maneuvers.
On top of this, it turns out that the “sissified” William is in love with Kitty, and she with him, which exacerbates a further series of battles between Canfield and King. One of the best skits of the film—and unfortunately, we can describe them as a series of “skits”—involves William’s attempt to trick his father about his desires to escape one night onto King’s boat to see his loving Kitty. He succeeds after nearly drowning and tossing many another of King’s associates into the river, before leaping into the waters himself.
But the great scenes of this film follow, with the sudden jailing of William’s father, his son’s attempt to sneak filing tools into his cell within a loaf of bread, and the entirely unexpected cyclone (the daily weather report declaring the day as “Unsettled. Wet and Cloudy.”) that almost totally destroys the town, blowing down houses around William, who by this time has been taken in custody to the local hospital, and sending the prison wherein his father remains locked up and is now drowning, into the river.
Suddenly, of course, young Bill storms into life, able to leap up several stories of the boat to steer into the prison in order to save his father, able to leap down to save his drowning Kitty, and, finally, amazingly, diving into the “muddy waters” once again to save a local minister. The weak little man becomes a hero that can make any father proud.
The amazing scene where an entire house falls down around Keaton may, had he been just a few inches off cue, have killed him. But the actor, brilliantly deadpan he was always, seems hardly to be aware of the dangers, which cannot but further delight us with his comedic talents. His position in the whole scene was simply noted with a nail in the ground, a mark which allowed him to remain standing within the frame of a blown-out window. Seldom before, and certainly not in later Hollywood, would an actor be even allowed to take so many chances with his life as Keaton undertakes in order to create a film.
Inexplicably, this great comic work was not a success at the box office, and saw the dissolution of his own company. His last original movie would be the 1928 MGM film, The Cameraman.
Steamboat Bill, Jr., however, has been recognized since by most film critics as a masterpiece of the silent film cinema.
Los Angeles, October 28, 2016