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Steamboat Bill Canfield is a gruff, burly Mississippi riverboat pilot. Presenting quite a contrast, his son William Canfield, Jr. has lived with his mother since he was a toddler and has just graduated from an elite college back East. Arriving by train wearing a polka-dot tie, beret, and pencil-thin moustache, Willie (Buster Keaton) is immediately hauled away for a Mississippi makeover. Bill Sr. (Ernest Torrence) and his equally huge first mate (Tom Lewis) are being challenged in the steamboat business by the local magnate, J. J. King (Tom McGuire). As it happens, King's own daughter Kitty (Marion Byron) is also visiting from school, and is acquainted with Willie. She and Willie make several attempts to meet each other over the objections of their fathers. Willie, meanwhile, proves to be less than proficient in learning the ropes of piloting a steamboat. King has the power to have Bill's boat condemned, so Bill physically confronts King and is promptly thrown in jail. Willie now sees that he must try and spring his father from jail, save his steamboat from the junk heap, and reunite with Kitty. Amidst all this, there is a mighty storm brewing.
Director: Charles Reisner
Executive Producer: Joseph M. Schenck
Story: Carl Harbaugh
Cinematography: Bert Haines, Dev Jennings
Editing: Sherman Kell
Production Supervisor: Harry Brand
Assistant Director: Sandy Roth
Technical Director: Fred Gabourie
Cast: Buster Keaton (William "Willie" Canfield, Jr.), Ernest Torrence (William Canfield, Sr.), Marion Byron (Kitty King), Tom McGuire (John James King), Tom Lewis (Tom Carter), Joe Keaton (Barber)
Why STEAMBOAT BILL, JR. is Essential
Buster Keaton was one of the most important figures in all of early cinema, and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) was his last independent silent feature and one of his funniest films. Though he does not take co-scripting or co-directing credit, Steamboat Bill, Jr. is one of his most personal and autobiographical movies. It is characteristic of Keaton's other great silent features The General (1927) and Our Hospitality (1923) in that it is rich in period detail and energized by some of Keaton's most inventive gags, including the most elaborate climax he devised for any of his films.
The idea came to him from his friend Chuck Reisner, the eventual credited director. Keaton must have taken greatly to it, since it would afford him another chance to recreate in great detail a time and place which teems with comic possibilities. He also layers into the proceedings bits and details of an autobiographical nature. Steamboat Bill himself bore many resemblances to Keaton's own father, Joe (who shows up in the film in a bit part as a barber). For the finale, Keaton staged many gags in an old theater, drawing on his vaudeville days for inspiration. Finally, the sight of Buster being whisked through the air by the cyclone must have been a sly wink in itself: Buster's father often related a tall tale involving baby Buster being carried off by a tornado while still in diapers and being safely deposited on a street blocks away.
Steamboat Bill, Jr. works as a virtual tour of Keaton themes and motifs. The basic story is one he had fashioned before - that of an ineffective boob who rises to the occasion when faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles. The quintessential Keaton hero eventually proves his worth by saving the game or the girl or the day. He had proven himself athletically in his previous film, College (1927), had overcome forces of nature in Our Hospitality and Seven Chances (1925) and had ultimately proven the mastery of his surroundings in any number of films.
In Steamboat Bill, Jr., Keaton especially emphasizes the contrasts of his hero, which serve to not only heighten the comic possibilities, but also to lend the film a wonderful symmetry. Willie's first day consists of foppishness, failed romance, bumbling abilities, and general feebleness, and is contrasted the next day by his courage, derring-do, mastery of his abilities, and success in love. Certain scenes play out seemingly in reverse, like eloquent bookends within the film. Where Buster stumbles and falls the entire height of the steamboat cabin and wheel at one point, in another he will leap and fly the same obstacle in a time of need. A scene where he fumbles with the controls in the pilot's cabin and causes a wreck is later mirrored with a scene in which he not only masters the complex gears - he improvises his own remote controls!
The film also highlights Keaton's mastery of composition. He favored the long shot for clarity, to firmly set the elements of the scene in the viewer's mind. Typically, such elements were the little guy (Keaton) set against the larger forces of machine (steamboat, locomotive, hot air balloon, etc.) or nature (cyclone, raging river, rock slide, etc.) in a realistic and defined setting. Keaton economically establishes the workings of the besetting forces, then places himself and the camera for maximum impact. It is by conscious design, not accident, that images from Keaton's films are so iconic. Keaton is always a figure in motion and he is best enjoyed that way, yet his compositions are so pleasing that stills and frame blow-ups from his movies also have power and resonance. Steamboat Bill, Jr. contains some of his most memorable imagery, from a lone figure leaning into an overpowering wind, to massive structures that have fallen or splintered and missed our hero, to simple images of a son trying to emulate his father's stance and attitude. Such images are startling and delightful, and Steamboat Bill, Jr. is full of them.
Made for producer Joseph M. Schenck, Steamboat Bill, Jr. brought to a close one of the most fruitful collaborations in the annals of silent comedy. Keaton gave up his independence to make films for Metro Goldwyn Mayer, Hollywood's most prestigious studio, but his brand of spontaneously innovative slapstick did not translate to the regimented structure of the studio system. He made one more great film, The Cameraman (1928), but many consider the films that followed the beginning of a decline in Keaton's innovative comedy output. The coming of sound also had a negative impact on Keaton's career; his talent for stunts and visual gags was no longer valued by an industry infatuated with the new sound pictures and Keaton increasingly turned to alcohol for solace, creating further problems for himself.
by John Miller & Felicia Feaster
Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)
Pop Cullture 101 - STEAMBOAT BILL, JR.
The concept of a "Steamboat Bill" archetype had existed for several years before Keaton's film. In fact, the name was used as a title for a popular song in 1910, which was itself a re-write of Slim Webb's popular tune about the railroad engineer archetype, "Casey Jones." The steamboat version of the song was written for the vaudeville act the Leighton Brothers and was a great money-maker and well-known beyond the stage, judging by sales of sheet music. The title of Keaton's film, then, would have painted an instant picture for 1928 audiences - that of the offspring of a larger-than-life figure.
Against all probability, Keaton's film is NOT the most famous film released in 1928 to have the word "Steamboat" in the title. That distinction belongs to the Walt Disney cartoon Steamboat Willie, which was the 2nd Mickey Mouse cartoon produced (after 1927's Plane Crazy) and the first Disney cartoon to have a fully synchronized soundtrack. It has long been assumed, and often written, that Steamboat Willie is a parody of the Keaton film. A simple viewing of the two films does not bear this out, since Mickey's antics revolve largely around playing various farm animals as musical instruments! Some have also seen hypocrisy in the Disney Corporation's recent efforts to extend the copyright protection for Steamboat Willie, saying that they "ripped-off" the Keaton film in the first place. In truth, Disney was playing off the same "Steamboat Bill" archetype that predated the Keaton movie in story and song. However, it is highly probable that Walt Disney and his entire animation staff, beginning with the primary architect of Steamboat Willie, Ub Iwerks, were Keaton fans. Who was a more "animated" silent star than Keaton? He is still admired by modern animators. Steamboat Willie premiered late in the year, on November 18th. Keaton's feature premiered earlier that year in May, so it is likely that Disney's staff did find some inspiration for their cartoon in Buster's newest effort.
by John Miller
Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)
Trivia and Other Fun Stuff on STEAMBOAT BILL, JR.
In the most celebrated single shot of Steamboat Bill, Jr., the cyclone causes an entire side of a building to fall straight toward Buster, who avoids death when his body passes harmlessly through an open window on the building faade. Stories of the filming of this gag are apparently NOT apocryphal - clearly the structure was weighted and solid, and obviously it misses hitting Keaton by inches. The gag was worked out mathematically and no doubt attempted many times with inanimate stand-ins. Nevertheless, many crew members left the premises rather than nervously watch the filming of the shot with Keaton.
Another justly famous scene in the film occurs when Willie is hauled by his father into a clothing store to replace the foppish apparel that Willie shows up wearing. Of particular offense is the natty but completely inappropriate beret on Willie's head. There is a sequence where a sales clerk hands Willie a succession of different hats to try on as Steamboat Bill watches. For the majority of the scene, Keaton frames the shot as if the camera were a mirror; that is, Buster is looking straight into the camera. Bill is to his side, and the sales clerk is off screen handing the hats into the frame. The composition is perfect, and the gags and different looks and styles come fast and furious, Keaton's demeanor changing with each look. In a wonderful self-reflexive moment, Keaton slips on his trademark porkpie hat, has a shocked look on his face, then quickly snaps it off his head before anyone can see it on him.
The lead actress of Steamboat Bill, Jr., Marion Byron, was only sixteen years old at the time of filming and could not swim. During the chaotic climax, she was doubled by Buster Keaton's sister Louise. Louise Keaton had some vaudeville experience and later went on to act in some of Buster's short subjects made in the mid-1930s for Educational Pictures.
The scenes at the River Junction train station were filmed in the little town of Freeport, California. The rest of the movie was shot almost entirely at what is now Broderick, just across the Sacramento River from downtown Sacramento.
The credited director of Steamboat Bill, Jr. (actually co-director with Keaton) was Charles F. Reisner. Reisner had gotten his start as a writer and comedian for Keystone, Vitagraph and elsewhere. Prior to working with Keaton, Reisner had worked on several films with the cinema's other great silent comic, Charles Chaplin. Reisner was billed as Associate Director on Chaplin's A Dog's Life (1918), The Kid (1921), and The Pilgrim (1923). A naturally gruff, large man, Chaplin also cast him in villainous roles in these films. Reisner also worked as associate director on Chaplin's 1925 masterpiece, The Gold Rush. He was under contract to Warner Bros. in 1927, so he was loaned out by that studio to work on Steamboat Bill, Jr.
During the dreamlike "vaudeville stage" portion of the cyclone sequence, Buster has a particularly odd run-in with a ventriloquist's dummy. Reacting to the winds, the dummy lurches in a life-like manner, startling Buster. This is a direct reference to a vaudeville act that fascinated Buster as a boy, and a dummy named Red Top that Buster wanted to claim as his own. As Keaton's third wife Eleanor relates in her book Buster Remembered, "the ventriloquist, named Trovollo, who owned Red Top discovered Buster's plan to abduct his dummy after an evening show and sneaked back into the theater just before Buster arrived. As Buster reached for Red Top in the dark empty theater, Trovollo, hiding behind Red Top, brought the dummy to life. Red Top shot up and yelled 'Don't touch me, boy, or I'll tell your old man!' Scared out of his wits, Buster ran out of the theater as fast as he could."
By John M. Miller
Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)
The Big Idea Behind STEAMBOAT BILL, JR.
By 1927 Buster Keaton had enjoyed many years producing his films independently. The head of Buster Keaton Productions since its beginning was Joseph M. Schenck, who was a manager and father figure to Buster as well as a financier. Buster was free to create at a pace he preferred, using any collaborators of his choosing. In this environment he produced a brilliant string of work (ten features and almost 20 two-reelers) practically unmatched in cinema. By the mid-1920s, Schenck was becoming heavily involved in the management of United Artists. He became president of UA in 1926 and naturally moved the distribution of Buster's features to the beleaguered company. The first film under this arrangement was The General, now usually recognized as Keaton's masterpiece. In 1927, however, it was seen as an over-budget box-office failure. The first indications of impending challenges to Keaton's independence occurred during preparations for his next feature, College (1927). From the outset, it was designed to be quicker, smaller and cheaper - therefore more profitable. For the first time, Keaton was assigned a director (though he basically directed the film himself), and more alarmingly, a "production supervisor" - someone to watch over shooting and report any financial overages. Keaton was particularly offended when this person, Harry Brand, was given his own credit during the opening titles of College.
Brand was back in the supervisor position for Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928). Keaton was also again assigned a director, although this time it was someone he liked and respected. Chuck Reisner was one of Keaton's friends from the old vaudeville days (he referred to his friend as "little Buster"). Reisner had graduated from performing onstage to being a writer, actor and director in films, most notably as an associate director for Charles Chaplin. It was Reisner's idea for Buster to play the son of a steamboat pilot, a notion that to Buster would've seemed full of possibilities. Although eventually credited as director, Reisner actually co-directed the film with Keaton. The production was also assigned a scenarist, Carl Harbaugh, but Keaton was later to say that he did virtually nothing, and that Keaton and his circle of gagmen devised the film's plot and gags in the usual manner.
Steamboat Bill, Jr. was tightly budgeted at $200,000, or less than half of the cost of The General. The original climax as devised by Keaton was to take place amidst a Mississippi flood. Unfortunately, there were actual floods on the Mississippi River in 1927 which caused great loss of life and property, and Brand convinced Schenck that it would be perceived as bad taste to proceed with a comedic flood. A cyclone provided a satisfactory substitute, but an expensive one: the final budget for the film would exceed $400,000.
by John Miller
Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)
Behind the Camera on STEAMBOAT BILL, JR.
Filming for Steamboat Bill, Jr. began in late 1927 on the west bank of the Sacramento River, just across from the junction with the American River. There near the California capitol, a full three blocks of city sets were built for the mythical town of River Junction, Mississippi. Buster's technical director was Fred Gabourie, who was responsible for the sets and in particular for rigging gags - and re-rigging them when changes in plot dictated substituting a cyclone for a flood in the film's climax. Multiple buildings were required to either splinter into a million pieces, collapse inward a section at a time, or in one particularly notable instance, lose its facade and plop to the ground with pinpoint accuracy.
In Tom Dardis' biography, Keaton: The Man Who Wouldn't Lie Down, "The heroine of Steamboat Bill, Jr., Marion Byron, recalls the more strenuous parts of the shooting, especially the scenes involving her immersion in the river. Marion was only sixteen when Steamboat was shot and was not a very good swimmer, so Buster's sister, Louise, was used as a double for all her underwater scenes - the women were nearly identical in height and weight...Louise recalls the lengthy diving sequence into the extremely cold water of the river, from which she and Buster would emerge half-frozen after several of these unsuccessful takes. Buster had instructed his man Caruthers to stand by with a bottle of the best procurable French brandy. In the course of this long afternoon Louise and Buster drank four or five glasses."
That famous cinematic storm also includes one of the comic star's most legendary stunts, when the facade of a three-story house falls down on top of Bill, Jr., who is saved from being crushed by a well-placed window. The gag appeared in two other Keaton films, Back Stage (1919) and One Week (1920) with smaller buildings, but the Steamboat Bill, Jr. version was the ultimate stunt, posing a great deal of danger for Keaton if he in any way miscalculated the complex gag. The comedian remarked later in his career, "I was mad at the time, or I would never have done the thing."
For the wind effects, six enormous airplane propellers powered by Liberty engines were brought in. A large crane and a number of cables were also needed to carry aloft buildings, props, and in one scene, Buster himself - clinging to an uprooted tree trunk. The latter effect was achieved using a conventional crane swinging the tree, yet another of the stunts Keaton performed without a body double or special effects.
Steamboat Bill, Jr. was released in May 1928. Unfortunately, it was the biggest money-loser of all of Buster's features released by United Artists. Its negative costs alone exceeded $404,000 but its domestic gross was only $359,000. Buster's fate was already sealed, however - by the end of 1927, Keaton's patron Joe Schenck had decided to devote his full energies to United Artists and pull out of independent film financing. Buster Keaton Productions, Inc. would be shut down. Keaton was taken by surprise, but Schenck convinced him to sign with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. After all, Joe's brother Nicholas ran M-G-M from the Loew's office in New York, so Buster would be in good hands...or so he thought. Keaton soon found himself to be merely a hired hand at M-G-M, under strict budgetary and creative supervision. Keaton became increasingly unhappy and self-destructive, later calling the signing with M-G-M "the worst mistake of my life." Steamboat Bill, Jr. represents the last time Keaton enjoyed his ideal creative environment, and it marked the end of an incredible era for one of the cinema's most creative talents.
by John Miller & Felicia Feaster
Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)
The Critics' Corner on STEAMBOAT BILL, JR.
Critical reaction to Steamboat Bill, Jr. upon its release in 1928 was decidedly mixed. Variety gave the film a glowing review, saying, "it's a pip of a comedy," and "one of [Keatons] best." They take special note of what has become the film's single most famous shot: "The old vaudeville stunt of a falling set with the victim emerging unharmed because it held a center door fancy which framed his body, is twisted into a corking screen gag through the added thrill of apparently seeing a whole side of a house fall, and Keaton remain standing upright, oblivious of danger because an open window fell around him." The reviewer also makes note of the apparent high budget of the picture, saying it "looks like a heavy production outlay and warrants it, for the effects obtained are thrilling. The windstorm is a gem and the river stuff interesting and colorful."
Conversely, Mordaunt Hall in The New York Times calls Steamboat Bill, Jr. a "gloomy comedy" and a "sorry affair." He says, "the producer appears to rely chiefly on water and smashing scenery to create fun. It seems longer than it really is, and the end strikes one as being brought about through sheer fatigue."
"I enjoy Keaton's pictures thoroughly, and while his latest production [Steamboat Bill, Jr.] does include such old favorites as a tornado which blows houses and trees on the frozen head of our hero and a wide-eyed heroine who peers into the camera with the angelic expression of a child anticipating a great big stocking full of goodies from Santa Claus, it has several bits of pantomime between Ernest Torrence and Buster Keaton which are sheer amusement. You may be bored at the long intervals during which the blank-faced hero slides across the Mississippi delta on one ear, but just wait for the scene in the haberdashery where Torrence, as the hard-boiled old river pilot, buys his collegiate son a hat. That scene alone is worth the price of admission." - Pare Lorenz, Judge, June 2, 1928.
"One of the least known of the Buster Keaton features, yet it possibly ranks right at the top. It is certainly the most bizarrely Freudian of his adventures, dealing with a tiny son's attempt to prove himself to his huge, burly, rejecting father...The film features a memorable comic cyclone, and a peerless (and much imitated) sequence in which Keaton tries on hats and changes personality with each, becoming a series of movie stars of the period." - Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies.
"This is one of the best Keatons, almost as good as The General...All the forces of nature attack Keaton, who makes no attempt to control them and doesn't even seem to resent them, but uses them instead to perform a kind of free ballet." - Georges Sadoul, Dictionary of Films.
"Hilarious, of course, with both delicately observed jokes and energetically athletic stuntwork coursing through the movie. But what really delights is the detailed depiction of small town life, plus Keaton's comic awareness of his own persona..." - Geoff Andrew, TimeOut Film Guide.
"Rather flat comedy redeemed by a magnificent cyclone climax." - Halliwell's Film & Video Guide.
Compiled by John Miller & Jeff Stafford
Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)
One of silent comic Buster Keaton's best features, Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) tells the simple story of a grizzled, rough and tumble sailor (played by noted character actor Ernest Torrence) visited by the son he hasn't seen since he was a child. But what should be a blissful father and son reunion instead reveals a hilarious generation gap between a Mississippi riverboat captain and his spoiled, college educated son.
Visiting from his school in Boston, the effete William Canfield Jr. (Buster Keaton) dressed in bow tie, beret and pencil mustache has immediate difficulty adapting to his gruff father's working class life. First catching a glimpse of Bill, Jr. at the train station mugging and playing his ukulele for a small child, Bill, Sr. recoils in horror, embarrassed by the undignified foppishness of his son's behavior. Bill, Sr. immediately strives to overhaul his son, and make him more suited to co-captain his ancient, dilapidated riverboat: the "Stonewall Jackson."
Bill Sr. escorts his son to the barbershop where he demands "take that barnacle off his lip" then takes Bill, Jr. shopping in an effort to make him over -- a sequence which includes some wonderfully subtle comedy as they debate the ideal headwear. Try as he might, Bill, Jr. can't quite please his father, and his luck in love is not much better. Also visiting River Junction is college classmate Mary King (Marion Byron) whose father King (Tom McGuire) owns River Junction's more modern and luxurious rival riverboat "The King." The two captains are soon bickering incessantly and the young couple's love seems doomed.
An array of comic imbroglios follow, including a hurricane, some fisticuffs between the two captains and Bill Sr.'s run-in with the law, that leads to Bill, Jr. trying to smuggle a loaf of bread into the jailhouse stuffed with files and other escape tools.
Steamboat Bill, Jr. demonstrates Keaton's creative range and comic inventiveness in tackling everything from subdued, facial comedy to stumbling pratfalls, as with a sequence where a hurricane races through the town, toppling buildings like matchsticks. That famous cinematic storm also includes one of the comic star's most legendary stunts, when the facade of a three-story house falls down on top of Bill, Jr., who is saved from being crushed by a well-placed window. The gag appeared in two other Keaton films, Back Stage (1919) and One Week (1920) with smaller buildings, but the Steamboat Bill, Jr. version was the ultimate stunt, posing a great deal of danger for Keaton if he in any way miscalculated the complex gag. The comedian remarked later in his career, "I was mad at the time, or I would never have done the thing."
But the film's most famous crowning achievement was probably the moment in that same chaotic hurricane sequence in which an entire house falls on Keaton, who then walks nonchalantly out the front door. To achieve the stunt, a house was dangled on the end of a huge mechanical arm that could be lowered onto Keaton at the proper moment to achieve the hilariously "impromptu" effect.
A crane was employed in another of Steamboat Bill, Jr.'s memorable moments, when Bill, Jr. clinging desperately to an uprooted tree, is carried off by the stormy winds across the landscape. The effect was achieved using a conventional crane swinging the tree, yet another of the stunts Keaton performed without a body double or special effects.
According to Tom Dardis in his biography, Keaton: The Man Who Wouldn't Lie Down (Charles Scribner's Sons), "most of the film was shot on location in and around the state capitol at Sacramento, California, along the banks of the Sacramento River. The heroine of Steamboat Bill, Jr., Marion Byron, recalls the more strenuous parts of the shooting, especially the scenes involving her immersion in the river. Marion was only sixteen when Steamboat was shot and was not a very good swimmer, so Buster's sister, Louise, was used as a double for all her underwater scenes - the women were nearly identical in height and weight....Louise recalls the lengthy diving sequence into the extremely cold water of the river, from which she and Buster would emerge half-frozen after several of these unsuccessful takes. Buster had instructed his man Caruthers to stand by with a bottle of the best procurable French brandy. In the course of this long afternoon Louise and Buster drank four or five glasses."
Steamboat Bill, Jr. was the last of Keaton's independent films made for producer Joseph M. Schenck, bringing to a close one of the most fruitful collaborations in the annals of silent comedy. Keaton continued making films for Metro Goldwyn Mayer but his brand of spontaneously innovative slapstick did not translate to the regimented structure of the Hollywood studio system. He made one more great film, The Cameraman (1928), but many consider the films that followed the beginning of a decline in Keaton's innovative comedy output. The coming of sound also had a negative impact on Keaton's career; his talent for stunts and visual gags was no longer valued by an industry infatuated with the new sound pictures and Keaton increasingly turned to alcohol for solace, creating further problems for himself.
Director: Charles F. Reisner
Producer: Joseph M. Schenck
Screenplay: Carl Harbaugh
Cinematography: Devereaux Jennings and Bert Haines
Music: Gaylord Carter
Cast: Buster Keaton (William Canfield Jr.), Ernest Torrence (William Canfield, Sr.), Marion Byron (Mary King), Tom McGuire (John James King), Tom Lewis (Tom Carter).
by Felicia Feaster