It’s been almost two months since I last checked out a Buster Keaton film, and I decided that my next one should be one of his major films — Steamboat Bill, Jr.. Directed by Charles Reisner, this silent film was released in 1928, and like a lot of Keaton’s works was unofficially co-directed by Keaton himself.
The film’s star, other than Keaton, is Ernest Torrence, who plays William “Steamboat Bill” Canfield. Steamboat Bill runs a riverboat business, and is facing hard competition from J. J. King (Tom McGuire), a rich man who owns many of the local businesses and has just opened his own steamboat operation. Steamboat Bill is concerned that he may soon not have any business, but his spirits are raised when he learns his son — who he hasn’t seen since he was an infant — is coming to pay him a visit. Unfortunately, he finds that his son (Keaton) is awkward, gangly, and has all the nautical knowledge of a man who just spent four years in college studying the arts.
That awkward moment when you learn your son is Buster Keaton.
Torrence is well-cast as Steamboat Bill. He’s a towering man compared to Keaton, and looks like he really could have spent the past several decades running the river. He’s capable of showing a bit of affection, but comes across as gruff and generally belligerent to people around him, from King to his first mate (Tom Lewis) to Bill Jr. Keaton, of course, plays off this very well with his naturally awkward demeanor.
The plot wanders a little bit, but at its heart is a Romeo and Juliet inspired story, in which Bill Jr. meets up with a college girlfriend of his (Marion Byron), who of course happens to be the daughter of J. J. King. As is common in these early silent comedies, Kitty doesn’t have much in the way of personality herself, but that’s OK; the romance between Bill Jr. and Kitty isn’t the point so much as the conflict that it creates is. Tom McGuire is the very picture of a puffed-up business magnate, and King’s overbearing manner, coupled with Steamboat Bill’s steadfast refusal to be pushed around, drives the plot in an entertaining manner.
There are lots of small little comedy bits, and there’s also a chance for Keaton to show off his stunt work with some of the physical gags. In fact, one of the most famous stunts he performed is in this film, and it’s nice to finally see the falling wall gag in context.
As with most silent comedies, Steamboat Bill, Jr. is a bit on the short side (70 minutes), and not particularly deep. But it’s a funny film, and has an entertaining enough plot, even if it does meander just a little bit. It’s well worth checking out for anybody who is a fan of Keaton, silent comedies in general, or who just wants to check out a classic film.