“That must have happened when the dough fell in the tool chest”
The beauty of Buster Keaton‘s work is how keenly he and his “gagmen” could build a plot around their comedic stunts. It’s said director Charles Reisner was the man who told his vaudevillian friend to craft a tale focusing on the son of a steamboat captain and really there’s little else involved beyond that. A bit of romance is added thanks to Keaton’s titular William Canfield, Jr.’s Bostonian beau Kitty King (Marion Byron), some suspense arrives out of nowhere to fill the climax courtesy of a disastrous cyclone, and the trope of effete son proving himself to a burly dad unfolds flawlessly. The only surprises are experiencing how far Buster will go to risk life and limb. That spectacle’s why we watch; the rest merely ties it together.
It’s funny because this is how many of the worst comedies today are created: gag upon gag loosely serialized in a shoddy plot that goes nowhere besides providing skits a venue to be seen by people who don’t want to pay ten bucks for two hours of skits. What’s different is that there are no stakes in the here and now. When Adam Sandler/Will Ferrell shoots himself or concusses himself or whatever other nonsense is sustained to act dazed and confused in the aftermath, danger doesn’t exist. Slapstick isn’t someone whining after camera tricks pretend to show us what happened. We need to see the injury, the embellished tumble, and the look of pain and embarrassment underneath a stoic face lying to say nothing occurred.
This is why Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and their contemporaries have endured. Their stunts were an art form that simply doesn’t exist anymore with evolved technology and computer effects. Actors who do their own stunts like Tom Cruise don’t receive huge box office takes as flukes—people legitimately want to see multi-millionaires working for their money. Keaton most assuredly did exactly that throughout his career and especially on Steamboat Bill, Jr., his final silent indie before moving to the studio system and sound. He’s obviously the star, but all accounts also place him as an uncredited co-director and co-writer, (some say sole writer due to his own remarks about how Carl Harbaugh added nothing to the production). And he insanely lets a three-story house’s façade fall down over him.
The film’s first half hinges on a feud between William Canfield, Sr. (Ernest Torrence) and tycoon J.J. King (Tom McGuire). The former has been ferrying the people of Muddy Waters for years while the latter took over everything else in town. Now, with his own hulking vessel at port, King’s about to claim Steamboat Bill’s livelihood too—the aristocrat filled to the brim with hubris looking to snuff out the little guy stuck in his ancient ways of blue collar pride. A telegram telling Bill his recently graduated from college son is visiting for the first time since he was a boy has the old man glowing with hope that he comes with help to keep the business alive. Buster’s clumsy beret-wearing, ukulele-playing Bill Jr. reveals the opposite.
Admittedly this expository section can drag as Jr. and Kitty (King’s daughter) look to continue their blossoming Boston romance despite warring fathers. Don’t get me wrong, the antics are hilarious like when Keaton tries his damnedest to keep his clothes on underneath the pajamas Torrence makes him wear to promise not to meet with the girl at night, but tiresome as they continue on. Luckily the push and pull process doesn’t go on for too long before Bill Sr. is put in jail to give Jr. another purpose beyond his love. A steady stream of physical pratfalls showing his lack of brawn earlier makes way for him to prove to Dad he can still be heroic without Bill Sr.’s immense stature and volatility.
I say things devolve into skits because the romance and feud with the Kings all but disappears at this point. They proved their purpose as check-stops forward within the story as well as introductions to different venues revisited later. But they’re unnecessary to the lengthy, cartoonish scheme of Jr. breaking his father out of jail. And that subplot evaporates itself once the weather turns and buildings begin to dismantle like Lincoln Logs. In fact, this brilliantly conceived and choreographed climax has so little to do with everything previously that it’s hardly surprising to learn it wasn’t the original ending. That was supposed to be a Mississippi flood before real-life events rendered making light of such tragedy tasteless. Either way, it’s through disaster that Bill Jr. saves the day.
Keaton’s emotionless as usual—his lack of expression a boon to his slapstick performance. If any moment contains a reaction besides nonplussed it’s when his character tries on several hats before delivering a face of disgust upon seeing the actor’s trademark headwear since retired atop his brow. Other than that it’s just hapless buffoon twirling, falling, and stumbling his way into one dangerous situation after another. And each one delivers a more iconic image of Keaton defying gravity and the odds whether running against hurricane force wind, flying across the ground on a hospital bed, or moving through the doors and windows of dismembered buildings tumbling and crumbling across his path. I love when a full building’s shell rolls over him and shatters as soon as he exits.
The mix of trepidation and humor is unparalleled. We laugh knowing everything turned out okay, but can’t help gasping at what’s onscreen considering the logistics’ craziness. Maybe it’s this authenticity to the stunts, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how good the supporting players are despite the silent era’s penchant for over-the-top, broad theatricality. Some of that still comes across with Byron due to female roles being thankless back then, but Torrence and even McGuire are allowed to dig in and fight rather than simply go through the motions with silly faces. This lack of mugging for the camera elevates Keaton’s work for me and makes these movies extremely watchable. Steamboat Bill, Jr. isn’t winning any screenplay awards, but it’s a priceless cinematic gem nonetheless.