' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Steamboat Bill Jr.

Friday, July 06, 2012

Friday's Old Fashioned: Steamboat Bill Jr.

I reckon a great many people know the most famous image from Buster Keaton's 1928 silent film "Steamboat Bill Jr." even if they haven't seen "Steamboat Bill Jr." The image is that of Keaton as the title character standing on the street in front of a building when the building collapses, falls forward, right on top of him, only to spare him simply because he happens to be positioned right in the line of the open attic window. Of course, what many people may not remember or know is the full context of this moment and what leads up to it.

After helping his father, Steamboat Bill Sr. (Ernest Torrence), escape from jail, the sheriff conks Bill Jr. in the head and sends him to the hospital. Alas, a cyclone hits the town and one shot reveals the entire hospital being lifted up and blown way and, thus, leaving Bill Jr. laying there in a bed out in the open. Confused, he stands and walks away only to just barely avoid another collapsing building. Thus, he turns and runs back to his hospital bed and jumps, hilariously, beneath the covers. But then the wind blows the bed away, away into a barn, and then out of the barn and then to a point in front of yet another building. Growing more scared by the second, he climbs out of bed a second time and this time hides beneath it. Alas, the wind blows the bed away yet again, leaving Bill Jr. exposed. And then the building falls and he emerges unscathed. To summarize: the fates so often toyed with Keaton – often relentlessly and cruelly – but, in the end, they always spared him.

Yet despite the extreme impressiveness of the stunt, what really sells it is his face. Rarely over-expressive - in fact, rarely expressive at all - his face is the epitome of a man merely trying to keep on keepin' on. Whether going up against wind or rain or death or danger or a disapproving father or a disapproving father of the woman he loves, he forges ahead with solemn gusto. Upon being electrocuted, most men would take their proverbial ball and go home. Not Keaton.

And for such a scant run time – 71 minutes – Keaton’s film feels less threadbare than chock full – in a good way - telling the story of a son attempting to earn the tough-love of his father intermingled with a star cross’d love affair “Romeo and Juliet” style recast in Dixieland. And Bill Jr. proves his worth to all and to himself in the midst of that third act cyclone, battling elements both meteorological and emotional.

Bill Jr. comes to River Junction, Mississippi to meet his father for the first time, captain of a derelict steamboat called the Stonewall Jackson that is about to figuratively get run off the river by the King, a new and improved luxurious paddle steamer owned by Steamboat Bill Sr.'s chief rival John James King (Tom McGuire). Bill expresses the hope that his son is even bigger than he is. This is not the case. Bill Jr. is short, timid, and dressed in a fancy-pants beret with a razor thin mustache for accentuation. Bill Sr. is dismayed. He is further dismayed when he realizes Bill Jr. not only knows but is in love with Kitty (Marion Byron), daughter of the dastardly King. Naturally Bill Sr. wants his son to have nothing to do with her and King wants Kitty to have nothing to do with Bill Jr. But, of course, Bill Jr. and Kitty want everything to do with one another.

You can guess how it all ends up but you can’t necessarily guess how they get there, and they get there via set pieces both small and large but all wonderful. The storm that takes Keaton all over town and eventually to the steamboat and then to the water is a miracle of moviemaking, modern or otherwise, making these latter day computer generated effects, no matter how groundbreaking, appear tame and uninspired. It’s strange because even though Keaton is famous for doing his own stunts you never sense palpable danger, perhaps because of the hand cranked cameras which evoke a live action cartoon, yet in spite of that it all seems so alive.

This, I think, goes back to the acting choices he makes, to battle so nobly even if he often comes across so helpless. Ask a person what they appreciate most about life and almost universally he or she will be quick to list, before anything else, the person he or she loves and his or her family. Yet these people so near and dear to us are forever at the whim of the world, mother nature, something beyond our control. Bill Jr. can’t control what is happening in this glorious, breathtaking third act climax, but he perseveres anyway - as if the world around him is a place he does not understand but has faith in anyway.

It is nothing short of a monumental achievement in the medium.


Lasso The Movies said...

Great review of one of the greatest comedies ever made. I love every second of this film, and I can't believe that more people don't watch it again and again. I just recently got the Blu-ray version and it looks better than ever. Thanks for this great post and for remembering to watch Buster Keaton.

Nick Prigge said...

Thank you very much! T'is a great one. And I currently have "The Navigator" (which I've never seen) on the way in the mail. Boo yah!

Derek Armstrong said...

The prison sequence seems a bit protracted, but otherwise, you're right, this is a true marvel.