Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)

This Is The Story Of The Hurricane

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

What is the most iconic image of Buster Keaton’s filmography? It would have to be that from Steamboat Bill, Jr. in which the front facade of a house falls on top of Keaton, only for him to be standing in the right spot so the space for the attic window spares him from serious injury or possibly even death. This stunt had also been performed in the earlier short films Back Stage and One Week but on a smaller and less death-defying scale. It certainly would have taken a mathematical mind to locate the precise spot for Keaton to stand in order to avoid possible death. This is the one image of Keaton’s catalogue that is recognizable to those who have never seen a Keaton picture, and possibly second only to the sight of Harold Lloyd hanging off the clock hands in Safety Last! as the most iconic image of the silent era. Set in the fictional River Junction, Mississippi (although filmed in Sacramento, California), Steamboat Bill, Jr. can be considered the final entry in a trilogy of Keaton films set in the American south alongside Our Hospitality and The General. However, even with the opening shot of cotton fields and the central prominence of a Mississippi paddle steamer named after Confederate general Stonewall Jackson, Steamboat Bill, Jr. is lighter on the use of southern iconography but still showcases Keaton’s fascination with this corner of The United States.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. has some of the strongest characterizations and relationships in a Keaton picture, with the father-son relationship between William “Steamboat Bill” Canfield, Sr. (Ernest Torrence) and his estranged son William Canfield, Jr. (Keaton) being at the heart of the film. Bill, Jr. is a bohemian, city slicker, hipster at odds with his gruff, salt of the earth, working-class father and captain of the Stonewall Jackson. What makes the relationship endearing comes from their awkward interactions with each other and the manner in which Bill, Sr. treats his son like a little boy and not a grown man – holding and dragging him by the hand, taking him to the barber and slapping Bill, Jr’s hand away while browsing for hats in a clothing store. Sr. has the potential to come off as an unlikeable character and an antagonist but the film does an effective job of creating sympathy for the father by presenting him as an honest, hard-working businessman who has landed on tough times and has a genuine delight that comes from the prospect of seeing his son for the first time since he was a baby. Even after Sr’s unjust arrest, Jr. still chooses to rescue his father despite having previously lost his temper with him and then forcing his son back to Boston – family comes first.

While physical and visual comedy is normally the main showcase in a Keaton picture (this is the silent era after all), Steamboat Bill, Jr. does have two great examples of verbal, pantomime exchanges. Firstly is Sr’s endearingly comic outburst over continually stepping on peanuts shells which his son has split over the floor by referring to him as “cocoanut shells”, and more significantly is the scene in the jailhouse in which Jr. attempts to smuggle in a loaf of bread with escape tools hidden inside. This leads to a very playful verbal exchange between father and son regarding the bread only for the tools to eventfully fall out before it could have been given to his father (“That must have happened when the dough fell in the tool chest”). It’s also worth noting that in the film’s contemporary score by Carl Davis, this scene features the use of electric guitars in the score, which it’s unique hearing a contemporary instrument, one which hadn’t even been invented at the time of the film’s release.

The love interest in Steamboat Bill, Jr. comes in the form of the very energetic Marion Bryon as Kitty King, whom is by far the most developed Keaton girl and the one instance in which the girl goes after him rather than the other way around. The film’s romance is in the vein of Romeo & Juliet, with Kitty’s father and rival to Bill, Sr., John James King (Tom McGuire), the owner of the “floating palace” of a steamboat known simply as the King in this classic story of big business vs the little guy. King even has the influence to get the Stonewall Jackson shut down by the authorities however come the end David beats Goliath, as humble Stonewall Jackson is the only steamboat to have survived the ensuing hurricane.

Yes, the hurricane, the highly ambitious 14-minute finale of Steamboat Bill, Jr. The sequence feels like a predecessor to the disaster movie genre with the sheer levels of onscreen destruction as entire buildings fall apart (including the aforementioned falling house facade) and in some cases are even raised into the sky as this southern town is gone with the wind (ba-dum-tiss!). Yet while the sequence is thrilling to watch, there is a real beauty to it and has the elegance of a ballet (I can easily forgive the effect of the uprooted tree blowing in the wind not being entirely successful with its portrayal of gravity). During this storm (and despite it) Keaton is even given the opportunity to pay tribute to his own vaudeville past when he enters what remains of a theatre, as he plays around with the various theatre props. I do have to ask just how many wind and rain machines had to be employed to create such a sequence. There are no elaborate post-production techniques (bar an animated electric effect when Bill Jr. touches a live wire), everything you see on screen is real. Nearly 100 years later and Hollywood is making entire movies within green screen rooms. Oh, how the mighty have fallen from grace. 

Noah’s Ark (1928)

Need An Ark? I Noah Guy!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Noah’s Ark was Warner Bros’ attempt to create a Cecil B. DeMille picture and one with very odd results, to say the least. It was a common convention for silent epics to tell two or more concurrent stories, one set in modern times and the others set in the ancient world with these being tied together with the same thematic elements (even Buster Keaton parodied this format in his feature Three Ages). Noah’s Ark from 1928 is not a very good film but it can at least go down in the history books as a bizarrely interesting one.

Noah’s Ark begins with some striking images of the Tower of Babel of which the movie compares to modern day skyscrapers. This is followed by an appearance of the Golden Calf with the title card (*in a booming Charlton Heston voice) “And throughout the ages, the worship of the Golden Calf remains man’s religion”. Cut to images of frantic modern day stock brokers followed shortly by a ridiculous montage of gambling and partying to the dissolve of a statute of Jesus which sheds a tear. Oh boohoo! This moralising couldn’t get more over the top if they tried.

Noah’s Ark is a movie trying way too hard to be profound. It’s already used the Old Testament to try and decry capitalism; the remainder of the film tries to state an anti-war message through the story of the Ark. I’m not a theologian but the connection the film tries to make between Noah’s Ark and World War I isn’t even strenuous at best. The movie’s justification for this is that the war and the story of the Ark both resulted in vast destruction and death. Paul McAllister plays a minister who serves as the biblical counterpart for Noah and proclaims before the movie transitions to the biblical tale itself (*in a booming Charlton Heston voice):

 “The Flood – it was a deluge of water drowning a world of lust!”

“This war – it is a deluge of blood drowning a world of hate!”

“The flood and the war, God Almighty’s parallel of the ages”

Yeah, you tell yourself that Buddy.

I do quite like the basic, melodramatic war story which is charming and mildly engaging. George O’Brien and Guinn “Big Boy” Williams are two American friends by the names of Travis and Al. The two are residing in Europe and may have a sexual thing going on between them as through much of their interactions they remain physically close, are very touchy and even have a romantic look in their eyes. On top of that during the actual Noah’s Ark portion of the film their biblical counterparts Japheth and Ham are even more homoerotic with their exposed chests. Travis, however, is going to marry his German love interest Marie (Dolores Costello), however, war breaks out and not only is married to a woman from an enemy nation but he’s also initially avoiding conscription. – This is one of those films in which the plot if maximised for upmost melodramatic effect.

65 minutes into what is the longest existing version of Noah’s Ark and we finally get what we came for. The portion of the film about the creation of the ark and the proceeding flooding is the best part of the film. Right of the bat, it’s very dreamlike – I just notice that Dolores Costello’s hairstyle is a few millennia off. It also has the most bizarre representation of God trying to communicate with mere mortals, by carving a giant book into the side of a mountain via lightning. If the film was only comprised of this it would be a really good short film. The movie’s much-touted flooding sequence if a spectacular sight with its huge sets, extras galore and water; lots and lots of water. However what’s made Noah’s Ark most infamous in the history books are the sources which say that several extras drowned during the making of the flood and reportedly 35 ambulances were called out to treat the wounded. You only have to watch the sequence itself to see the extras on screen do appear to be in real danger.

Noah’s Ark was a part-talkie and as a result, you have some very stilted acting during the talking scenes but you can’t blame them. The direction of the film is fine but that distinctive Michael Curtiz style is not as apparent as his later talkies. The obvious model train seen early in the film is cute but in comparison to the flood sequence, if realism was their goal then they failed. Also, can a lightning strike destroy a bridge made out of stone?

Myrna Loy is billed at the bottom of the main players screen at the beginning but only appears in one scene, in which she gets to speak and her first time to do so on screen. Sources do state, however, she also appears in the flooding sequence as a golden-winged dancer before the sacrificial altar but this viewer failed to spot her among the carnage. It does seem odd that for a rather high billing that she appears only very briefly in the film. I can only speculate that perhaps she appeared in more scenes in which were removed for re-releases of Noah’s Ark and have since become lost.

Once the story of Noah comes to a close we are brought back to the present and lo and behold, the war has ended and the armistice is signed. The Minister then makes a proclamation to echo Woodrow Wilson’s  famous statement “The war to end all wars” (* once more in a booming Charlton Heston voice):

“I mean that war is now an outlaw, and will be hunted from the face of the earth. Those ten million men have not died in vain.”

Yeah, you tell yourself that Buddy.

The Cameraman (1928)

Man With A Movie Camera

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The Cameraman is my 2nd favourite Buster Keaton feature after Sherlock Jr. A film which manages to hit every beat and even MGM themselves believed in the film enough that it became their comedy training film for new writers as the example of a perfect comedy; I can’t argue with that. Like the aforementioned Sherlock Jr, The Cameraman reflects a fascination with filmmaking in which Keaton has to act like he doesn’t know anything about the anatomy of a camera.

Once again Keaton (playing a character conveniently called Buster) is competing for dominance and the love of a woman in a world of alpha males. What makes the relationship between Buster and love interest Sally (Marceline Day) work so well? Her sympathy, or the fact that she is one of the few people in the film who doesn’t act like a complete jerk towards Buster, even the bell boy at the fictionalised MGM newsreel department is a jerk to him when Buster simply asks about the woman in his photograph despite him being a super sweet guy. Does MGM want people thinking their newsreel department is full of pricks? Or is it the little things such as her first encounter with Buster when he first bumps into her he smells her hair and goes into a trance without her noticing. You can feel the chemistry between them from their body language and even from close-ups of the two starring at each other. Likewise, there is the relatability of any man who has tried to impress a girl only for his effort to be a failure by the presence of a bigger, stronger man. – Plus there is the adorable factor from seeing the two of them together. When Buster gets a kiss from Sally as he leaves her off at an apartment and then walks away in the rain with a sense of elation has Singin’ In The Rain vibes; was Gene Kelly inspired by this?

The Cameraman is one of those rare films which is comprised of one great moment after another. The scene in Yankee Stadium, for example, has no effect on the rest of the plot but there’s no justification required in order to watch Keaton’s athletic prowess as he pretends to play baseball by himself.  Likewise, the sequence on the stairs is a wonder of Keaton’s ability to use the frame in what looks like to modern eyes as a 2D platforming video game. Another superb use of this comes in the pool sequence in which Sally walking by the poolside in a swimsuit then suddenly all of the men get out of the pool entering from the bottom of the frame out of nowhere. Likewise, keep an eye out for the on-screen nudity.  This sequence also gives arise to possibly the most bizarre moment in The Cameraman in which Keaton after losing his bathing suit in the pool begins eyeing a woman wearing an excessive bathing suit and starts approaching her while Jaws-like music plays (as part of the wonderfully quirky modern score by Arthur Barrow). Off-screen he steals the suit but we never see how; just what exactly did he do to her? It’s both creepy and funny at the same time.

I have to ask if automobiles back then were designed for use in comedy such as an open top double decker bus which creates so many possibilities for physical comedy. However the most oddly designed vehicle present in The Cameraman has to be the 1927 LaSalle Convertible Coupe Fisher with its seat on the back of the car separate from the main seats of the vehicle. The seat is already inherently de-emasculating by itself, even worse when your girl is at the front with another guy and you’re completely cut off from them because the roof is up to protect them against the rain. Oh yeah, that’s another thing, when it rains you have no protection. Again I have to ask, was this vehicle designed for use in comedy?

The Tong War is among one of the greatest of Keaton spectacles with its large-scale carnage and extras galore; plus I do love the fascinating underworld of the tongs and opium dens as a setting. The moment in which Keaton is confronted by gangsters and is cornered is one of those oh so glorious “how is he going to get out of this?!” moments. By the end of the film, Keaton goes through so much misfortune that you badly want to see him succeed in the end. In the end, he gets his sweet, satisfying revenge while the douche who takes credit for rescue Sally from the out of control speedboat gets his comeuppance. The revenge is unintentionally obtained but more than very well deserved.