Combustible Celluloid
Stream it:
Own it:
Get the Poster
Search for streaming:
NetflixHuluGoogle PlayGooglePlayCan I
With: Buster Keaton, Tom McGuire, Ernest Torrence, Tom Lewis, Marion Byron
Written by: Carl Harbaugh
Directed by: Charles Reisner, Buster Keaton
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 73
Date: 05/12/1928

Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Keaton's 'Steamboat' Stays Afloat

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I had been under the impression that Buster Keaton's Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928) was directed by Charles F. Reisner. That's a forgivable mistake, since he's actually credited as director. But I recently read in World Film Directors, edited by John Wakeman, that Keaton did not care a whit about credits. Sometimes he was credited as director and sometimes not. But the truth is that he directed all of his own pictures up until Spite Marriage and the advent of sound in 1929. But it's only "auteur" theorists like myself who fret about who directed what. Once you sit down to watch Steamboat Bill, Jr., there's no question who made it.

Keaton stars as William Canfield Jr., the spoiled, city-bred son of a steamboat captain (Ernest Torrence, a great character actor who played Captain Hook in the recently restored 1924 Peter Pan). When Willie returns from college, his father is disgusted with his refined appearance and behavior but recruits him to work on his steamboat anyway. Another, newfangled steamboat, bought and run by a man named King (Tom McGuire), has also begun traveling the river, and Willie (of course) falls madly in love with its captain's daughter, Mary (Marion Bryon). After Willie spends a considerable amount of energy both trying and failing to run the boat and chasing after Mary, a cyclone whirls into town destroying everything, but magically mending all of Willie's problems at the same time.

Though The General (1927) is still considered Keaton's masterpiece, Steamboat Bill Jr. is gaining considerable momentum. It is the movie that contains perhaps his greatest stunt, the front of a building collapsing and falling on Keaton while he safely passes through a window, oblivious to everything. Legend has it that Keaton had a precise mark to stand on, and that if he missed it by an inch, he would have been crushed.

But the movie has much more to offer than this astonishing moment.

Keaton was a seemingly natural director blessed with the gift of knowing precisely where to put his camera at every moment for maximum emotional and comical impact. In interviews he claims he was just doing his job (false modesty, like John Ford's) but the utter beauty of his films claims otherwise. Most of the movie is done in long shots so that the audience can see the reality of the stunts and gags without cutting. Close-ups are used sparingly, only to underline a particular emotion. The placement of the actors within the frame is always flawless. If Keaton does a fall, he sets up the shot so that the starting point, fall, and landing are all perfectly composed, going from one end of the frame to the other. (He does one particularly amazing fall when a crew member picks up a rope that has become wrapped around his ankle.)

The cyclone sequence is still breathtaking as well. I've recently seen The Perfect Storm, which had terrific special effects, but lacked any human contact, as all the figures are wearing raincoats obscuring their faces. Keaton braves the storm with no raincoat, and in full view, striding almost horizontally along the street, making no headway at all. A sequence where he clings to a tree that gets swept up by the winds recalls a legendary story from his childhood where a similar storm supposedly carried baby Buster three blocks and set him down safely in the middle of the street. The sequence in the film is clearly done with some kind of crane carrying the uprooted tree, but Keaton's clinging to it without any ropes or support is real.

Of course, Steamboat Bill Jr. has lots of laughs as well. My favorite moment is a small one, when Keaton first steps aboard his father's boat, the Stonewall Jackson. He leans on the railing and a life preserver promptly goes overboard and sinks. You can imagine Keaton's facial expression, just a little worried, but still stone-faced.

Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928) was Keaton's last independent movie for producer Joseph Schenck. After that he signed the fateful contract with MGM who didn't know what to do with him after silent film faded and sound came in. Who knows what kinds of films Keaton would have continued to make if sound hadn't come in? But on the basis of Steamboat Bill Jr. and many of his other films, Keaton established himself as one of the two or three great film directors, ever.

Although Kino Home Video has released the ultimate Buster Keaton on DVD, Image Entertainment's 2003 double feature disc is still an essential item. It teams beautiful transfers of both The General and Steamboat Bill Jr. on one DVD with new scores by the Alloy Orchestra. The scores alone supercede the Kino versions.

In 2010, Kino re-issued the film in high-definition DVD and Blu-Ray editions. These discs come with a complete alternate version of the film, as well as three optional music scores (by the Biograph Players, Lee Erwin and WIlliam Perry). There's a making-of documentary, a stills gallery, a montage of pratfalls and two recordings of the "Steamboat Bill" song.

In 2017, Kino-Lorber re-issued the film yet again on Blu-ray, in a 2K restoration, and in a double-bill with Keaton's College. The Biograph Players score from the last Blu-ray is gone, and now we have a score by Timothy Brock, as well as an organ score by Lee Erwin. Happily, the new release has a commentary track by historians Michael Schlesinger and Stan Taffel, though various other featurettes are now gone. Even so, the transfer is truly spectacular, and could be the definitive edition.

Movies Unlimtied