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Silent Sunday Nights - April 2013
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,Steamboat Bill, Jr.

Steamboat Bill, Jr.

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).
BW-71m.

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