Silent-comedy legend Buster Keaton’s last independent film — and penultimate one under his exclusive control — before giving himself over to MGM, which proceeded to run his career into the ground. Steamboat Bill, Jr., from 1928, is one of the comedian’s richest works. Far more elaborate than the breezy, but minor, College, this movie returned Keaton to the heights of elaborate visual comedy. Its climactic cyclone sequence is quite the most impressive and involved of the comic actor’s filmography, even outdistancing the destruction of an entire train in The General.
In terms of technical execution, the destruction of the town is as good as — and in some ways better than — the larger-scale earthquake sequence in Alan Crosland’s seriously intended Old San Francisco, from the previous year. Plus, Steamboat Bill, Jr. has the advantage of mixing thrills with intentional humor, though that’s perhaps beside the point.
This film also ranks as one of Keaton’s best-developed comedies, traveling much of the same ground we’re used to, with him as a much-maligned outsider coming to terms with new and hostile surroundings. Yet Steamboat Bill, Jr. differs slightly in its presentation: Keaton arrives on the scene as an apparently accepted representation of a college-educated aesthete — and not at odds with, but already somewhat attached to, leading-lady Marion Byron, who is also a part of the world that produced his character.
However, Bill Jr. is far from accepted by his own father (Ernest Torrence), who views his diminutive, somewhat prissy, son with unconcealed distaste. “If you say what you’re thinking, I’ll strangle you,” the old man cautions a friend after they get a look at the young man. And while the acquaintance keeps quiet, it’s not long before he suggests that dad might easily kill Junior (“No jury would convict you”).
The dramatic — and comedic — tension comes from Junior proving himself to his father, while dealing with the rivalry between his dad and the girl’s own (Tom McGuire) for the steamboat business in the area. While this material, to some extent, might be drawn from Our Hospitality, it subtly deepens the mood of the film, especially since the fancy new steamboat belonging to our leading lady’s father is part and parcel of the same hated world that produced Junior.
Don’t worry, though: Steamboat Bill, Jr. is, first and foremost, a wildly creative comedy that has as much power to impress and amuse an audience today as it did in ’28. If you’ve never experienced this film, it’s a must-see.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke
[The 2004 fall season of Cinema in the Park kicks off in Pritchard Park at dark (about 8:30 p.m.) on Saturday, Sept. 4, with Steamboat Bill, Jr.. This classic Keaton silent film will be preceded by the Keystone short Barney Oldfield's Race for a Life, a 1913 spoof of both D.W. Griffith and melodramas in general.]