d. Buster Keaton & Charles Reisner / USA / 71m.
It’s difficult to begin a discussion of Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. anywhere but the film’s famous shot, perhaps one of the most famous in all of cinema. The front facade of a house has broken free of its moorings during a cyclone on a Mississippi River port and falls onto Keaton, who’s saved only by the fact that he’s standing in the exact location of the second-story window’s course. It glides right over him, leaving him standing bewildered. The shot is brilliantly executed (more on that in a moment) and it never grows old to watch, but the reason to begin with it happens to be something else entirely. I like the shot in the larger context of Keaton scholarship because it symbolizes his approach to filmmaking: chaos and mayhem swirl around the stone-faced comedian, trying only to keep his footing in the world around him.
The idea behind Steamboat Bill, Jr. came from Charles Reisner, who had worked with Charles Chaplin on The Kid and The Gold Rush. (Producer Joseph Schenck hired Reisner as Keaton’s co-director.) It’s one of Keaton’s most domesticated plots, as it is not merely Willie’s pursuit for the girl and the approval of her family but also the pursuit for approval from his father, Bill Sr. (Ernest Torrence). It is the unseen mother’s idea that the two be reunited after Willie graduates from college, but with his striped-blazer, heavy suitcase, tiny mustache, and beret, Willie is nothing like his steamboat captain father. The mere sight of Willie sends the father into histrionics (implicitly suggesting the father do away with the preppy Willie, the first mate advises: “No jury would convict you”).
The father’s first order of business is to make Willie presentable, buying him a new hat and shaving the “barnacle on his lip,” and then teach him the ways of his steamboat, a rickety vessel named the Stonewall Jackson. Bill Sr. has been feuding with another steamboat entrepreneur, John James King (Tom McGuire, looking eerily similar to an elderly Robert Frost), who — because this is the world of silent movies — has a young and attractive daughter (Marion Byron) that the protagonist finds remarkably lovely.
The first part of the film runs on the standard Keatonian formulae: extracting humor from the moments when he can’t live up to society’s (or his father’s) expectations for masculinity; struggling to understand the complexities of riverboats; and his inability to shed the preppy air he’s acquired while away at university. There is nothing particularly barbarous about the humor here, and little requiring Keaton’s comic ingenuity. Instead, the appeal of the first half is subtle and what deserves closer inspection is Keaton’s directorial choices.
Keaton’s ability to successfully utilize spatial dimensions becomes apparent in the cyclone that closes the film, but he provides some sly reminders of spatial construction through his direction and framing. Willie arrives by train, promising he’d wear a white carnation in his lapel. What follows is some misdirection humor, where almost all the men aboard the train are wearing white carnations in their lapels, but the real reason the father cannot find Willie amongst the travelers is that Willie has gotten off at the wrong side of the depot, literally on the wrong side of the tracks for the whole scene. These unknown moments continue into the film, such as Willie’s visit to the barbershop, where we realize that the co-ed who he loves has been sitting the adjacent barber’s chair the entire time.
The spatial construction is nowhere near as nuanced as The General, which makes great use of small sets contrasted against larger environments, or The Navigator, where the boat must become a continually surprising and providing set. It might initially seem ironic that the steamboat plays such a minor role in the course of the film, but the decision is quite cunning. When Keaton does make use of the boat in this film, he occasionally retreads his previous work in The Navigator. By keeping the steamboat out of the film’s major plot points, he manages to avoid derivation, although the first half of the film is still plagued by a comparatively slow build-up.
The film takes a turn and improves above its ordinary beginnings following the arrest of Bill Sr. for attacking King in anger, and shortly after he’s put in jail, the cyclone arrives. Keaton wanted to end the film with a flood, but due to tragic floods in the United States shortly before and the prohibitive costs, Keaton substituted in the cyclone. It is the superior choice for numerous reasons, primarily because it reinforces what Roger Ebert calls “a universal stillness that comes of things functioning well, of having achieved occult harmony.” Keaton and his crew destroy an entire town. There are strong winds that prevent walking, creating a strange but metaphoric conflation of stillness and movement. There are flying boxes, collapsing walls, and swinging fence doors. He becomes caught in a bed that blows around the town. He latches onto a tree that is uprooted by the wind and blown into the river while he hangs onto the trunk. It is natural having its way with the short man who does everything he can to avoid being swept away.
The famous falling-wall shot wasn’t entirely new to Keaton, but it had never been attempted on that scale. He’d done a variation on it in his short film One Week, and the stunt actually repeats itself in different versions through the rest of the cyclone in Steamboat Bill, Jr. (More than once he opens a door and walks through while the entire wall collapses.) “The clearance of that window,” Keaton said later, “was exactly three inches over my head and past each shoulder. And the front of the building—I’m not kidding—weighed two tons. It had to be built heavy and rigid in order not to bend or twist in the wind.” Walter Kerr, in The Silent Clowns, notes that Keaton’s entire crew besought him not to go forward with the stunt. Reisner wouldn’t direct the scene and left the set. The story editor almost quit. The cameraman who eventually ran the film for the film ended up looking the other way in fear. Keaton, however, had it perfect in one take. Kerr:
It is stunning in a special way, Keaton’s way. It is not, for instance, frightening, as a similar shot of [Harold] Lloyd’s might have been frightening. When Lloyd stunted, he meant to terrify; and he increased the audience’s agitation by letting us see how agitated he was in the situation. Nothing of the sort here. Buster is placid. The wall falls impassively. When it has fallen, wall and Buster have arrived at an entirely equitable relationship. There is nothing to scream about.At the end of it all, Willie encounters sort of the ultimate test of masculinity of a Keaton film, where not only the girl-in-distress requires rescuing but his own father and her father need saving as well. (And the ending, where a priest is saved from the river, is pure Keatonian magic.)
Synchronized sound came to Hollywood in 1927, but Keaton’s producer, Joseph Schenck, was not worried. “Talking pictures will never displace the silent drama from its supremacy. There will always be silent pictures,” he predicted, which we know now is certainly untrue. Steamboat Bill, Jr. was Keaton’s first film released after the popularization of sound, and fortunately it remained silent. (Sound would not have been available to Schenck’s independent studio, but nevertheless: sound would have distracted the spectacular cyclone sequence.) What would not remain for Keaton was independence. After the completion of Steamboat Bill, Jr., Schenck informed Keaton that he would close shop. Keaton, working as an independent auteur with Schenck’s financing for the last eight years, would have to find a new home and enter what would become a troubling stage in his career. Steamboat Bill, Jr. then marks the quasi-end to Keaton’s independence and filmmaking, and though not conceived to be such, it is a proper capstone. It’d be a masterpiece were it not for its slightly unoriginal first half, but the second half nudges it up in the ranks.