on May 12, 2004
STEAMBOAT BILL, JR (1928) was Buster Keaton's final independent film -- the last feature he would make before financial issues forced him to sign what would be a disastrous contract with MGM. Therefore, it seems fitting that this film contains a quick throwaway laugh where, upon being handed a familiar looking porkpie hat (a mainstay throughout his career), he throws the headwear away in horror. This movie has a lot going for it. While it takes a little time to get started, it finishes strong with a finale that shows exactly how hilarious Keaton could be when given the creative control he craved.
Steamboat Bill is a rough, working man, trying to keep his head above water in the steamboat ferry business despite his extremely wealthy competitor. He welcomes the forthcoming return of his son, who he hasn't seen since the boy's childhood. But when short, pampered Buster Keaton (the Junior of the title) arrives, Bill Sr.'s hopes of having a strong, vigorous young man to help his trade are dashed. But to make matters worse, Keaton is madly in love with the fetching young daughter of his rival, and the two lovers continue to see one another, despite the objections of their respective families. Yes, it's "Romeo and Juliet", had Shakespeare been less interested in suicide and more friendly with steamboats and slapstick.
Three years earlier, Keaton had done a film called SEVEN CHANCES (1925), a movie I felt wasn't really memorable until the long and hilarious chase sequence that begins towards the end of the film. And like SEVEN CHANCES, this film really takes off in its wild grand finale. Not that the film is bad beforehand. It isn't. There are numerous strong sequences. But I love Keaton when his pace really starts to pick up and he madly runs from one crazy sight gag to another. And once the rain starts falling and the hurricane turns up the intensity, the film presents us with some of the most successful material of his career, as well as the most famous. Everyone has seen the scene where the exterior wall tips over and Keaton only survives by standing where the empty window falls -- that's from this film. The pace resembles one of his more frantic short films, and the timing is, of course, superb.
The disc also contains two short films from earlier in Keaton's career. CONVICT 13 (1920) involves a case of mistaken identity. A golfing Keaton is accidentally put in jail, confused with a prisoner who is due to be executed that very day. This short is devilishly funny. The sequence of Keaton being hanged by an elastic rope has to be one of the funniest few seconds ever committed to celluloid. And, of course, it's always entertaining to see Joe Roberts in another amusingly over-the-top fight sequence where he gets to throw extras (and Keaton) around like ragdolls. This ranks as one of Keaton's strongest short films.
The other short film included is DAYDREAMS (1922). Actually, it would be more accurate to say that this is merely a reconstruction of the film itself, as a complete copy did not exist at the time of this release. That said, the fact that some minutes of footage are missing doesn't hurt the film at all (although I did dislike the apparent decision to slow down the occasionally piece of footage; it really hurt some of the gags). On the contrary, this is a fabulous twenty-two minutes, and while some of the gags are a bit predictable (he writes to his girlfriend that he's really "cleaning up" Wall Street; she imagines he's become a power player, but I think anyone reading this can guess what he's really doing), they are strikingly funny in execution. Some of the jokes are quite inventive and surprising. Keaton shoveling dirt into a trash can with no bottom is amusing (and a quiet recycling of an earlier joke), but it's hilarious when he shifts position to reveal that the receptacle was sitting on top of an open manhole cover with an angry sewer worker underneath.
This disc contains material from opposite ends of the 1920s, showcasing Keaton as an independent filmmaker creating both short and feature films. It's a great look from a cinema history point of view, but it's equally effective at showing us some damn good filmmaking. STEAMBOAT BILL, JR was the end of an era, but Keaton's independent career sure went out with style.
on March 16, 1999
I must disagree with Leonard Maltin; Steamboat Bill Jr. is one of Keaton's best, and as a very fluid and well-plotted example of late-silent filmmaking, it makes an excellent intro to his work for neophytes-- better perhaps than some of the more deliriously surreal comedies such as Sherlock Jr. Keaton's performance as the college boy son of a riverboat captain is generally regarded as his best acting, and the 20-30-minute hurricane sequence is one of his most remarkable feats of solo pantomime (it includes the famous clip of a building front falling on him, the window landing exactly where he stands). This tape is also worth noting for the presence on it of a recently discovered complete version of the short Convict 13, one of the last missing bits of silent Keaton.
on February 10, 2004
Although mildly boring to begin with, the movie ends with an impressive storm-sequence, where a whole town is blowing hither and thither around a baffled Buster Keaton, giving him a chance to demonstrate his gymnastic virtuosity, making up for an othervise tiring experience. Marion Byron is sweet as the Julia of the unpopular romance. Far better than the overrated The General.