Thursday, April 7, 2011

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (Reisner. 1929)

"He refused to rehearse the stunt because, he explained, he trusted his set-up, so why waste a wall?"


If you go back through My Adventure Through Film you will find my entry on a film called Sherlock, Jr. That film was my first experience with the Hollywood legend, Buster Keaton. A gigantic name in silent film, Keaton is widely considered one of the most important comedic actors in history. I did not find a thing about Sherlock, Jr. to be funny. Maybe the 1077 Films to See Before You Die understands that comedy can be very hit or miss. That is why they included another Buster Keaton film that was actually hilarious, Steamboat Bill, Jr.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. follows the story of a lovable screw-up named William Canfield. Canfield (Keaton) is the far from the tree son of the cantankerous riverboat captain, William 'Steamboat Bill' Canfield. After being reunited, the father and son duo try to captain a riverboat together, but- like in any other Keaton film - things go horribly wrong. This leads to several zany and impressive physical stunts that make the film stand out from Sherlock, Jr.

I have said that Buster Keaton is the closest thing film has ever had to a living cartoon character. His films almost always consist of him throwing his body around for the sake of a dangerous and outlandish physical stunt. Keaton is physical comedy. He does all of his own stunts in his films, including one of the most famous stunts in all of the early days.

There is one very memorable scene in Steamboat Bill, Jr. where Keaton is outside in the middle of a horrible wind storm. As he is trying to find shelter, trees and buildings are crumbling around him. A frantic Keaton finds himself standing at the base of a house when the front begins to fall towards him. But Buster is able to avoid being squished by standing directly in the path of the window. This is an impressive stunt because it left very little room for error. While watching the film, you can actually see his shoulders shrink as the wall falls. Even Buster Keaton, the living cartoon character, was nervous about this one.

This is what actually makes the films of Buster Keaton interesting. His films always incorporate an early sense of campy danger. His stunts are far more impressive than his comedy is funny. If anything, you should watch his catalog for that reason alone.

Though I still do not see many redeeming qualities in Sherlock, Jr.- I can now see why film buffs still go crazy for Buster. Steamboat Bill, Jr. is a film with a lot of heart, wit and jaw dropping stunts (for 1929). Right now, Buster Keaton has a 50% success rate with me. I can only hope that the upward trend continues.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. : B-

My Next Film.....The Asphalt Jungle (Huston. 1950)

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