STEAMBOAT BILL, JR. (1928)

Director: Chas. F. Reisner, Buster Keaton (uncredited)
Writer: Carl Harbaugh
Cinematography: Bert Haines, Dev Jennings
Cast: Buster Keaton, Tom McGuire, Ernest Torrence, Marion Byron
Running Time: 71 min.

In 1928, America was flush from a decade of peace and prosperity. The United States was an economic giant and at the very forefront of great technological advances. In the world of entertainment, the first regularly scheduled television broadcasts emanated from station WGY in Schenectady; Warner Brothers premiered the first full length “talkie”; and a young cartoonist named Walt Disney introduced a scrappy mouse named Mickey in his debut cartoon short, Plane Crazy.

That title was appropriate, for there was no other advance that captured the imagination of the American public more than the world of aviation. A decade earlier, America had triumphed in the World War and established itself as the first great air power. In 1928, Amelia Earhart became the first woman to cross the Atlantic by airplane, and the Graf Zeppelin departed and returned to Lakehurst, N.J., spanning the globe in a record-shattering 12 days!

Also in 1928, Buster Keaton produced his last great silent film, Steamboat Bill, Jr., a light-hearted look at life aboard a Mississippi paddle steamer.

In an era of phenomenal technological progress and exuberant optimism, the great comedian’s choice to tell his story within the seeming confines of an already antiquated milieu may seem anachronistic, but Steamboat Bill, Jr. holds up to repeated viewing nearly 75 years later because Buster Keaton was a man out of his own time. Like his contemporaries Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, Keaton was an amazing physical comedian, but it is his craftsmanship as a filmmaker that allows his work to still delight contemporary audiences.

To reveal the plot of Steamboat Bill, Jr. would be almost irrelevant, for there is very little of it. What narrative there is exists as a framework that allowed Keaton to create some of the most phenomenal comedic stunts ever captured on film. From the moment Keaton is introduced, he performs small bits of slapstick — getting caught in a rope on the deck of the ship, trying on a series of hats in front of a mirror — that make any viewer marvel at his physical prowess, yet only set the stage for the acrobatics to follow.

A major plot point comes when a great hurricane storms through the small Mississippi town, tearing buildings asunder and separating Keaton from the other protagonists. Another filmmaker, choosing to focus on the interpersonal stories, might have dispensed with the device through a quick title card or a few brief scenes of errant destruction, but Keaton relished such moments to display his skill as a comedian and visual auteur.

In one scene that astounds audiences to this day, Keaton stands placidly on an abandoned street while the wall of a building literally collapses around him. Keaton precisely engineered this scene; he stood in the exact spot that allowed the two-ton wall to crash on all four sides of him while he passed harmlessly through an open second story window. There could be no rehearsals, no mistakes, and no chances for a retake. It is reliably reported that the experienced cameraman actually closed his eyes during this shot, unable to witness what could have easily been the death of the star.

But what makes the scene even more remarkable is not just the sheer audacity of the stunt, but the unbroken reaction of Keaton himself; while the audience is still gasping for breath, Keaton glances quickly behind as though unable to determine the source of the sudden sound (and though this is a silent film, we all “hear” the noise of the wall as it thunders to the ground), then implacably carries on in the same direction he had been heading.

In the Age of the Flappers, Keaton’s unflappable character epitomizes a time and a spirit that would never be successfully recaptured. Steamboat Bill, Jr. was the zenith of Keaton’s career; none of his subsequent films would be as popular or as memorable. Like the hapless hero seemingly unaware that the world was crashing down around him, 1928 stared unblinking into a future that would soon bring the Great Depression and a second World War. Later that year, another star would secure his place in the firmament of the public imagination, as Mickey Mouse broke new ground with the first talking cartoon, Steamboat Willie, named in tribute to Buster Keaton’s timeless masterpiece.


(return to FILM FEST 2002)

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