Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Films of Buster Keaton: Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928)

Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928)
Directed by: Buster Keaton & Charles Reisner. 
Written by: Carl Harbaugh.
Starring: Buster Keaton (William Canfield Jr.), Ernest Torrence (William 'Steamboat Bill' Canfield), Tom McGuire (J.J. King), Tom Lewis (Tom Carter - First and Last Mate), Marion Byron (Kitty King - King's Daughter).

It was the Movie of the Week discussion on The Dissolve of my favorite Keaton film, Sherlock Jr., which made me decide to go through the silent master’s films one at a time. One of things that was mentioned in that discussion was what several people thought was a distinct influence on the films of Wes Anderson in Keaton’s work. It was a connection I had not quite made before – but watching all of Keaton’s films just a few months after I did the same with Anderson’s films, the influence in apparent – from the precise framing both use – often with the most important information at the dead center of the frame – to some of the style and props used (the book How to Be a Detective that Keaton reads in Sherlock Jr. – and several others he reads through his films would fit right in on a bookshelf in the Tenenbaum house). Watching Steamboat Bill Jr., the influence was even more apparent. The storyline involves an son, who is perceived as weak-willed and effete by the father he doesn’t even know, and he sets about trying to prove himself to his old man. When Keaton arrives in the movie, sporting a strange mustache and a beret, he looks strangely like Jason Schwartzman in Rushmore (or really, Schwartzman in any of Anderson’s films). There are even a few special effects shot during Steamboat Bill Jr.’s excellent cyclone finale that made me think of the deliberately old school special effects in the ski racing sequence in Anderson’s latest The Grand Budapest Hotel. More than ever, Steamboat Bill Jr. shows the influence one master has had on another.

In many of Keaton’s movies, he has to prove himself to the woman he is in love with – or else her father who doesn’t see Keaton as a suitable match for his daughter. In Steamboat Bill Jr., he pretty much already has the heart of the girl he loves – Kitty King (Marion Byron) the second they see each other in the barber shop. They knew each other back in Boston, and both have travelled down South to visit their fathers. Bill (Keaton) has travelled to see the father he hasn’t seen since he was a baby – a rough Steamboat captain (Ernest Torrence) who runs an older, somewhat dilapidated steamship the Stonewall Jackson. Kitty is in town to see her dad – J.J. King (Tom McGuire) who has just started running his steamship in direct competition with Bill – and it’s brand new, and he expects to squash Bill like a bug. The two men hate each other – and both forbid the two youngsters to be together. But they are in love.

Keaton’s Bill spends most of the movie trying, mostly in vain, to impress his father. His dad didn’t even know what he looks like, and when he comes to meet his son’s train, he thinks that every big, strapping lad his is boy – and doesn’t look twice at Keaton, who is nattily dressed and at one point prances around playing a ukulele to try and quiet a crying baby. His first impression of his son is not good – and it doesn’t get much better as Keaton, in his trademark style, screws up one thing after another aboard the ship. It gets so bad that he eventually buys Keaton a ticket home – he wants nothing more to do with him. But then Keaton not only breaks his father out of jail, but he also displays heroic actions during a cyclone that hits.

The cyclone sequence is one of the most famous in all of Keaton’s work – and it’s easy to see why. Keaton had done the “wall falling on him, but is saved by the window being in just the right place” gag before he did it in Steamboat Bill Jr. – but he perfected it here – using a bigger wall, and a smaller window. He then does several variations of it – as Keaton goes in and out of several doors and windows, of buildings that eventually come crashing down all around them. The stunt work in this sequence is among the best in Keaton’s entire filmography.

More than most of Keaton’s work, Steamboat Bill Jr. also has a stronger narrative through line – it isn’t just a bare bones plot as an excuse to build gags on, but an actual one that pays off as it goes along. It isn’t as needlessly complex as Battling Butler, where Keaton had to spend too much time explaining everything either. It is the perfect mixture of narrative and stunt work.

Steamboat Bill Jr. is probably a notch below Keaton’s absolute masterpieces – Our Hospitality, Sherlock Jr. and The General – but only a notch. For most directors, a film as great as Steamboat Bill Jr. would be the high water mark of their career – the fact that this film is fighting for fourth place in Keaton’s filmography is a testament to just how great his work was, not an insult to this film at all.

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