Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)
Typical of Buster Keaton movies, "Steamboat Bill, Jr." tells the story of the unsung hero. We see the same man in "The General" and in "Sherlock Jr."...it's a part that Keaton plays so well, so why shouldn't he reprise it?
"Steamboat Bill, Jr." is a movie about a son wanting his father's attention/blessing. In fact, there is more than one overruling father in this film. The movie tells the story of two steamships, one owned by William Canfield, the hard-working man's man—the other is owned the the Mr. Potter of steamships, Mr. King. King has, like Mr. Potter, bought up everything in the town and he's intending to grind Canfield's little steamshiping (it's a word...okay, it's not a word) business into the ground. To run the risk of being extremely corny and punny I'll say that he's trying to sink it...that wasn't that bad, was it?
So with all the stress from Mr. King and the steamshiping business, Mr. Canfield doesn't realize until the time has almost arrived that his son is coming down on the train that very day...he'll be recognized by a white carnation.
Here's where the first glimpses of comedy are seen—Canfield is expecting a rugged, stud muffin (I'm paraphrasing), grizzly man. Instead, he gets Jr. (Keaton). I've always thought that Keaton looks like Jimmy Fallon and here it is again...he looks like Jimmy Fallon.
Keaton is a short guy and in the movie he arrives dressed in a colorful suit with a tiny mustache. In essence, the macho man that Canfield was expecting turns out to be a short, precious fop...a dandy.
There is no maternal figure in "Steamboat Bill, Jr." to alleviate the tensions of the situation. Instead, when Young William returns home he finds King's daughter, Kitty (Marion Bryon), as beautiful as ever and ready for love.
Their love, which occurs immediately upon sight, is banned by the rivalry of the fathers. They both claim that they will pick the spouse for their children...stupid kids don't know any better.
It's really interesting to see what we think of "modern values" exemplified in films that date back as far as this one. "Steamboat Bill, Jr." is about being yourself...an individual. You don't need your father's approval, though that wouldn't hurt.
The dads are just trying to do what they think is best for their kids, but they are rugged men...not your most sentimental people.
So Junior doesn't get along with his pops and Kitty is banned from seeing her lover...it's a perfect setting for a storm, which is what happens.
A massive gale blows through the town and wrecks freakin' everything and here is where we see what makes Buster Keaton movies so much fun—the stunt work.
You want to talk about stunts? Okay, let's talk about stunts...you will never see them better than in Keaton's silent movies. He does them with trains in "The General" and with huge buildings and slight of the camera in "Sherlock Jr."; but it has never been done so audaciously and perfectly than in this film. It's shocking what these people were able to accomplish...I find myself wondering what the budget on this film was.
So yes, the movie is sentimental and touching—has a brain; but it also a staggering achievement in effects.
Keaton has never been so likable and his material has never worked so well for him.
"Steamboat Bill, Jr." is one of the best silent comedies ever made.
Score: 4 out of 4 stars
Posted by Micah Jones