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. 

Our Hospitality (1923)

Deliverance

All of Buster Keaton’s silent films had a beauty and a grace to them, but Our Hospitality exemplifies this best. A mini-epic, full of beautiful, lush scenery and landscape shots; visually speaking, I consider this to be Keaton’s best film. Take the film’s finale as an example, as Keaton walks along the edge of a cliff with huge forest backdrops stretching as far as the eye can see or the equally as impressive sequence in which an entire dam is blown up. But the sequence which best showcases this idealised look at 1830’s America is the supreme majesty of the steam locomotive sequence; a predecessor to what would come in The General. This is one of the greatest sequences Keaton ever captured on film, with the music score on the Thames Silent’s version giving it (as well as the film as a whole), an even greater sense of awe. Filming as well the construction of such large-scale props must have been no easy feat. It’s a sequence which is beautiful, funny and thrilling at the same time, filled with so many inventive sight gags. When Keaton’s top hat doesn’t fit on his head in the locomotive carriage, he puts on his iconic pork pie hat; that’s more like it! It’s a bumpy unstable ride to say the least, and even has a dog chasing it throughout for that extra bit of amusement

The set up of Our Hospitality is the type of melodrama which was rife during the silent period (and what Keaton himself parodied in his short The Frozen North). One family has a feud with another which lasts from one generation to the next, and nobody remembers what caused the feud to begin with (“Men of one family grew up killing men of another for no other reason expect their fathers had done so”). Ah simple but effective naivety; why can’t we all just get along?

Keaton’s birthplace is not stated during the film, but it’s clearly located in Appalachia, prior to his character being sent to New York for a better upbringing; Keaton the sophisticated New Yorker vs. hillbilly red necks. Yep, we have a movie here ripe with hillbilly stereotypes. On top of tapping into the Appalachian cultural stereotype of feuding families, there are plenty of guns stored in the Canfield house, but when they’re not allowed to use them due to their comical dedication to be hospitable, they just ask the townspeople to borrow a gun. Likewise in another scene, Keaton sees a husband abusing his wife, steps in and throws the husband aside, yet the wife starts attacking Keaton himself. Keaton then runs away, followed by the husband ordering the wife back into the house. Ah, the glorious lack of political correctness.

Three Ages (1923)

History of the World, Part I

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Three Ages is one of the earliest spoof movies, a feature-length parody of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, cutting between three different historical periods in which in men set about obtaining the love of a woman. The Stone Age portions of the film are a fantasy stone age in which people wear fur, carry clubs and man and dinosaur live side by side and there is even a sequence with a stop-motion dinosaur; I wish I could see more of it. Three Ages long precedes The Flintstones with its use of anachronisms; with clever stone age equivalents of modern days things such as the turtle operated ‘wee-gee board’. Likewise just like in a D.W. Griffith film, the Rome featured in Three Ages actually looks vast and expansive while featuring the most amusing chariot race ever complete with sleds and huskies. It’s moments like these which give Three Ages a sense of cuteness and innocence to it.

The role of a caveman is perfect for Wallace Beery, Keaton’s more manly opponent. Many of Keaton’s films show him with a feminine side and this is particularly true with the stone age portions of Three Ages, not just with his rivalry with Wallace Beery but also in a scene in the stone age in which he is overpowered by a woman bigger and stronger than him whom the audience is led to believe is a man to begin with. Yet the prevalence of gender-bending is taken a step further in one of the modern age portions of the film in which the wife of a household whom is dressed like a man has the final say on who marries her daughter. Do girls like bad boys or nice sensitive guys? Buster Keaton films would have you believe the latter. Margaret Leahy is Keaton’s leading lady in Three Ages, an actress came to Hollywood because of a beauty competition and supposedly couldn’t act. The filmmakers appear to work their way around this as her performance largely consists of just mildly reacting to things.

Unlike Keaton’s other silent films, Three Ages has a larger emphasis on non-slapstick gags and not as much stunt work. The film still has one major def defying stunt sequence in which he failed to make a leap between two buildings; however, this happy accident resulted in a pure classic Keaton stunt sequence as he effortlessly descends several stories through a building. Likewise, the finale of stopping a wedding at the last minute is such a cliché but Keaton manages to put an unexpected spin on it. It would be easy for a film like Three Ages to be cynical and pessimistic but like Keaton’s other work it’s optimistic in the end.  The three Keatons go through much hardship and pain but through much perseverance, they get the girl in the end.