Steamboat Bill, Jr. – US, 1928
There’s a scene early on in Steamboat Bill, Jr. that would play very differently if it were filmed today. In it, a young man named William Canfield Jr., played by Buster Keaton, tries to make a baby stop crying by prancing around in what may be considered a stereotypically “feminine” way. Unbeknownst to him, his father, an overly macho captain of a riverboat called Stonewall Jackson, is watching his actions and reacting in horror. He then tells his friend not to say what they are likely both thinking. It is a remark that an audience in 1928 would have understood immediately and found quite funny. Filmed in color, the scene, like reruns of Three’s Company, which no longer gets the laughs they used to, would run up against present-day sensitivities.
Here, though, the gag works, and it sets up a series of other equally effective gags, each involving the father trying to show the son how a real man looks and behaves. These bits involve changing the younger Canfield’s wardrobe, getting rid of his short, European-looking mustache, and smashing his precious ukulele, which apparently is not manly enough for a riverboat worker. Each bit is extremely funny, and Keaton’s reactions and facial expressions while trying on hat after hat are priceless. And what happens to the hat is pure genius.
The film’s plot revolves around a dispute between Canfield’s father, William “Steamboat Bill” Canfield (Ernest Torrence) and his rival J.J. King (Tom McGuire). In the beginning of the film, we see King’s impressive new steamship, which has been arrogantly named King. King is one of those early American businessmen with monopolistic goals. He wants to control transportation, banking, and the hospitality industry, and the town’s residents couldn’t be more thrilled. King could easily have been portrayed as a maniacal fellow trying to squash his competitors, but the film wisely avoids this. Instead, he, as well as the elder Canfield, bears a slight resemblance to the elder Capulets and Montagues from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. A wealthy man who just happens to have a long-standing hatred for Bill Canfield, Sr, King also has a daughter named Kitty (Marion Bryon), and it soon becomes clear that she and Canfield Jr. not only know each other but are also deeply in love. Of course, it goes without saying that their fathers are opposed to them being together.
The film is well-directed by Charles F. Reisner, who was himself a former vaudeville performer. He seems to have a real understanding of comedy and comic timing, and he knows just where to put the camera to get the best view of Keaton’s classic facial expressions. Marion Bryon, here making here screen debut, is also very impressive in the film. She plays up Kitty’s sweetness, as well as her playfulness, and some of her best moments capture her joy at seeing Keaton’s exploits, many of which come at her father’s expense. As for Ernest Torrence, he shows both comic and dramatic skills, and it is easy to see why he was a success in both genres.
The film contains plenty of classic Buster Keaton gags, from an early bit involving a white carnation to a later one involving a loaf of bread made from something other than flour. Also, watch out for a hilarious pantomime during a famous steamboat song and a particularly brilliant bit involving Keaton’s attempts to sneak aboard King’s ship. As joyous as these bits are, however, they pale in comparison to what happens toward the end of the film during a long stretch involving a cyclone and its effects on the town. In these moments, we see Keaton battling the elements, collapsing buildings, and curiously placed stage props. It simply has to be seen to be believed.
Steamboat Bill, Jr. is similar to other Keaton films in that it first builds Keaton’s character up to be a bit of a buffoon only to later show him possessing amazing skills when it truly counts. In 1927’s College, it was athletics that he suddenly developed skills in; here, it’s sailing. In both films, the message seems to be that we should never discount the amazing powers of love, for they can enable us to do some pretty impressive things. The sentiment may seem a bit cliché in the real world, but it has always worked on the silver screen, and it works magnificently here. Steamboat Bill, Jr. remains hilarious and heartfelt. It is truly a classic of cinematic comedy. (on DVD and Blu-ray)
4 and a half stars