Steamboat Bill, Jr. (Blu-ray)(Kino International, 7.6.2010)
Arriving near the end of Buster Keaton’s silent career, Steamboat Bill, Jr. was a flop in 1928, but has come to be seen as one of Keaton's best. The greatness of his films is in the ingenuity of the stunts, the humor of the slapstick, his underrated skills as a storyteller and an emotional/psychological undercurrent running beneath the gags. While Steamboat Bill, Jr. may not be a masterpiece like Sherlock, Jr., The Navigator, or The General, it features an abundance of everything Keaton does best.
Inspired by “Steamboat Bill,” a popular 1910 folk song, this film tells the story of William Canfield (Ernest Torrence), the premier riverboat captain in River Junction, Mississippi. When this status is threatened by an extravagant new boat owned by the town’s richest citizen, John James King (Tom McGuire), help arrives in the person of Willie Canfield, Jr. (Keaton), a recent college graduate from Boston who hasn't seen his father since he was a young boy. Matters become complicated by a romance -- against the will of both fathers -- between Canfield, Jr. and King’s flapper daughter, Kitty (Marion Byron).
Although Charles Reisner is credited as director and Carl Harbaugh as screenwriter, Keaton, co-wrote and directed Steamboat Bill, Jr. without credit (as he often did). The pacing, cutting and framing of shots -- emphasizing full-length views of the characters -- are all typical of Keaton’s style. Steamboat Bill, Jr. offers a perfect balance of action and humor, with just enough romance to keep the plot rolling.
The action comes from a hurricane-force storm that strikes River Junction, destroying much of King’s empire and giving Willie several chances to be a hero. In a highly informative making-of extra, filmmaker Bret Wood tells us that Keaton originally planned a flood, but United Artists executives were nervous about audience reaction because the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927 had just killed 246 people in seven states.
The highlight of the storm comes when the front of a three-story building collapses on Willie with a small window opening on the top floor saving him (Keaton told biographer Rudi Blesh that squeamish Reisner, whose son would write Dirty Harry, refused to leave his tent while this scene was being shot). Keaton authorities have claimed that the star was deliberately tempting death because of depression over his recently failed marriage and the decline of his career. Steamboat Bill, Jr. was the last film he made for independent producer Joseph M. Schenck and the last over which he had complete control.
For me, however, the best moments in Steamboat Bill, Jr. are the quieter comic ones. Captain Canfield arrives at the train station looking for the son he expects to be as tall and rugged as he is and approaches each likely candidate hopefully only to find disappointment. At the same time, Willie is desperate to be recognized by any older man, which leads to an unexpected homophobic joke. Canfield is appalled to learn that his son is this short twerp carrying a ukulele, wearing a bow tie and, heaven help us, a beret.
The best scene involves the Canfields going to the local haberdasher to try on more suitable (manly) headgear. While trying on several hats, the Great Stone Face seems to exhibit a wide range of emotions despite never changing his expression -- with one exception. Such is Keaton’s greatness. The exception involves the haberdasher slipping Keaton’s signature flat hat to Willie, with Willie/Keaton quickly getting it out of sight before anyone can see it.
This joke fits in perfectly with the film’s identity theme. Very subtly, Steamboat Bill, Jr. asks viewers to consider what makes a man. Is it appearance or action? Can a prissy little man like Willie be heroic? For all its humor, Steamboat Bill, Jr. has a painful, probably autobiographical subtext about living up to expectations. While Keaton’s rival, Charles Spencer Chaplin, brought such emotional elements to the surface -- often with sentimental, even maudlin results -- Keaton keeps them subdued.
In his aforementioned, 13-minute extra, Bret Wood explains how Keaton used similar bits of business in earlier films, how the film was made in the Sacramento area and how it ran well over its $300,000 budget. Wood notes that Hollywood films in the twenties often had two negatives: one for the American market and another for foreign distribution. As a result two versions of Steamboat Bill, Jr. were made. The non-action scenes were shot twice and two cameras were used during the stunts. With a split screen, Wood shows differences between Keaton’s performances in two different versions of the hat scene.
Luckily, both negatives of Steamboat Bill, Jr. have survived and Kino has included both in this Blu-ray edition. The recently discovered Keaton estate version is reportedly the U.S. version and has significantly better elements than the more familiar public-domain version. Kino's transfer looks clean and crisp, displaying lots of details in the actors’ clothing, though there is some distortion on the title cards and it cannot approach the beauty of Kino's recent Blu-ray for Keaton's The General (a breathtaking reproduction, especially during the sepia-tinted sequences). Still, there's no denying that this is the best showcase this wonderful film has had since its original release. -- Michael Adams