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.