Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)

As one of the few years in the challenge for which I haven’t seen a single movie,  I figured I need to give 1928 a good start by watching my very first Buster Keaton film.  If you are unfamiliar with the works of Buster Keaton, I am so sorry.  He is often compared to Charlie Chaplin due to his successful physical comedies in the silent era, and Steamboat Bill, Jr., is cited by many as one of his best.  It had high points and low points, but overall, I found Steamboat Bill, Jr. to be a very enjoyable film.

William “Steamboat Bill” Canfield (Ernest Torrence) is the captain of a decrepit steamboat in River Junction.  Business is bad due to the much newer and fancier steamboat owned and operated by his rival J.J. King (Tom McGuire).  When William’s estranged son (Buster Keaton) comes from Boston for a visit and to possibly join the crew, he discovers that his son is smitten with his rival’s daughter (Marion Byron).  Both steamboat captains forbid the romance, but the lovebirds aren’t listening.

The beginning is a little slow-moving, and is mostly carried by comedic stunts featuring excessive gestures for which the silent era is unfortunately known.  There are some somersaults when there would really only be a stumble, or copious amounts of facial expressions to show anger or surprise.  Those examples are par for the course for silent films, though, and those examples aside, Steamboat Bill, Jr. has some great comedic scenes, even in the early going.  For example, there is the scene in the haberdashery where William is trying to get his son a hat.  They try on hat after hat while making faces of disgust, and when they finally just settle on a random hat, the wind blows it off his head and into the river as soon as they step outside.  It’s ridiculous, but definitely worth a few chuckles, and characteristic of the humor that punctuates the first half of the film.

Less funny, but much more impressive is the second half of the film where a terrible storm hits the town of River Junction.  Strong winds blow cars down the street and cause buildings to crumble.  As he fumbles his way through the disaster, Buster Keaton shows just how different he was from Charlie Chaplin: Keaton stands dazed on the street as a wall falls on him, the wind carries him through the street on a bed, and he grabs onto a tree for dear life before it is ripped from the ground and tossed into the river as it was nothing more than a branch.  While Chaplin was able to affect us more on an emotional level, Keaton left us in awe over the pure fearlessness of his every stunt.  Known as “the great stone face,” Keaton was able to make something strangely hilarious as he threw himself around in dangerous situations, only to come out uninjured and mostly annoyed. He was one of the most courageous stuntmen in Hollywood, and his mind devised some seriously breathtaking feats.

Some of Keaton’s best work is apparently on display in the last half of Steamboat Bill, Jr. and I found myself in awe over the courage he must have had to throw himself fully into each and every one of them.  I’m really excited to check out more, especially The General.  Unfortunately, Steamboat Bill Jr. didn’t make it that far up my Flickchart.  I believe I need to do some restructuring to make it sit a little higher.  I would very much suggest you check out Steamboat Bill, Jr, or just any Keaton film.  It’s amazing watching an all-time film great get to work.

The stats:

Steamboat Bill, Jr. landed at #583 out of 1347 movies on my Flickchart.  That converts to a ranking of 3 out of 5 or 57%.  It is ranked #8 out a 11 movies I have seen from the 1920s, and as stated above, I believe that is way too low.  It is ranked #10 out of 11 movies I have seen so far in this challenge.

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