#496) Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)

#496) Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)

OR “Papa, Can You Steer Me?”

Directed by Charles Reisner (and an uncredited Buster Keaton)

Written by Carl Harbaugh (again, with an uncredited Buster Keaton)

Class of 2016 

The Plot: William Canfield Sr. aka “Steamboat Bill” (Ernest Torrence) is a Mississippi steamboat captain whose ship is being overshadowed by the bigger, more luxurious steamer of rival John James King (Tom McGuire). Canfield is delighted to learn that his son William Jr. (Buster Keaton) will be paying him a visit for the first time since he was born. Expecting a big, burly seaman, Junior is a skinny “dandy” with ukulele and beret, much to Bill’s dismay. Bill attempts to teach Junior the ways of steamboats, but Junior is more interested in the affections of Kitty (Marion Byron), the daughter of John James King. This all comes to a head when a cyclone strikes the river, with a climactic sight gag that always brings the house down.

Why It Matters: The NFR gives an extensive tribute to Keaton as the “everyman” of silent film comedy, and gives an overview of his career. While Keaton himself gets superlatives like “ingenious”, the only “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” specific shoutout is for the film’s “breath-stopping stunts and cyclone finale.”

But Does It Really?: Amazingly, I don’t have a lot to say about “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” The scene of the house falling around Keaton is remembered for a reason, and the rest of the film holds up well with plenty of LOL moments. I think it’s the plethora of Keaton films on the list that gives me a feeling of sameness with “Steamboat”. Regardless, “Steamboat” is a fun and funny silent movie that is still worth a watch, with an iconic gag that pushes it into NFR inclusion.

Wow, That’s Dated: Steamboats, that’s the big one. 1928 was the tail end of the steamboat’s reign on the Mississippi, ultimately giving way to trains and diesel tugboats.

Title Track: The title comes from the popular song “Steamboat Bill”, immortalized in “Steamboat Willie” (see “Legacy”). And it has lyrics!

Other notes 

  • “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” was filmed on location in Sacramento, California, with the Sacramento River doubling for the Mississippi. I think you’d have to wait until “Lady Bird” to see another movie so prominently shot in California’s capital.
  • If Ernest Torrence looks familiar, you may have seen his other nautical-themed NFR performance as Captain Hook in “Peter Pan“.
  • The beginning of the film is heavy on setup and light on laughs, but once Keaton arrives, things definitely pick up. My main takeaway from “Steamboat” (or any Keaton film really) is that no stone is left unturned. Keaton has clearly thought of every possible gag idea for each scene, and you are seeing the funniest, best staged version in the final print.
  • During the scene where Bill tries to buy Junior a new hat, one of the rejected hats is Keaton’s trademark pork pie, which he had already donned in several earlier films.
  • The Michael Douglas Scale returns! Buster Keaton was 32 during production, Marion Byron was 16! He was literally twice her age!
  • Best line (intertitle) in the movie: “No jury would convict you.”
  • When Junior learns to steer the steamboat, the entire cast shows off their status as “Star Trek Academy of Stumbling for the Camera” graduates.
  • The key to any good physical comedy in film: tell the audience what you’re going to do, and then do it. If Keaton is straddling between two boats, you know he’s going to fall into the water and it’s going to be hilarious. Keaton also excels at subverting your comedy expectations. There are several unexpected pratfalls that spring up organically throughout the film.
  • The film’s original third act was going to take place during a flood, but the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 made the producers insist on a re-write. The film’s cyclone/rainstorm finale is an acceptable workaround, with every conceivable wind and rain gag thrown in for good measure.
  • Keaton had attempted the “house falls around a person” gag in some of his earlier films (you can see it in Keaton’s fellow NFR short “One Week“), but “Steamboat” is unquestionably the definitive version. Stories of the scene’s production (including tales of a suicidal Keaton) are lacking in reliable sources.
  • Despite the massive age gap between Bill and Kitty, the romance plot-line is minimal to the point of being unintrusive. It also lead to the last gag of the movie, which kept me laughing through the final intertitles.

Legacy 

  • “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” was a critical and commercial disappointment when first released, and a despondent Buster Keaton jumped ship (if you will) from United Artists to MGM. Although his first film with his new studio (1929’s “The Cameraman“) would later make the NFR, Keaton called this move the biggest mistake of his career.
  • The main takeaway from “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” is the shot of the house falling around Keaton. It has been recreated time and again, most notably in “Arrested Development”.
  • Six months after the release of “Bill”, the similarly titled “Steamboat Willie” premiered, marking the film debut of Mickey Mouse. The title and profession of the main characters are the only parallels between “Bill, Jr.” and “Willie”. I don’t remember Buster Keaton swinging a cat around while playing “Turkey in the Straw”.

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