Steamboat Bill, Jr. is a 1928 film directed by Charles Reisner and starring Buster Keaton. Having been made almost a hundred years ago, it’s of course a silent, black and white film, but despite what you may think if you haven’t seen it, it has aged incredibly well and it’s still a brilliant 71 minutes-long comedy!
Let me write just two lines on Buster Keaton before talking about the film: he was a leading figure in the Hollywood of the Twenties and, after a bad decade, he returned in vogue for at least another twenty years. Director, screenwriter, actor, juggler, acrobat… He was truly an all-round artist. For example, not only is he the protagonist of Steamboat Bill, Jr., but he also wrote the subject and co-directed it together with Reisner.
This film is considered the last masterpiece of his first golden age and, since this work still has the energy and quality it had a century ago, it’s easy to understand why. It was a colossal at that time, with hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in majestic sets and special effects that are still remarkable today. Needless to say, it bombed at the box office and only later it got the praise it deserves.
Summarizing the plot is simple but I don’t think it adds much to the review, as the story is only an excuse for a series of comical situations only vaguely linked to each other. Bill Jr. (Keaton) leaves Boston to join his father (Ernest Torrence) who’s the captain of a shabby steamboat on the Mississippi just when the competition of the ruthless businessman King (Tom McGuire) is leaving him without customers. The father isn’t happy to discover that his son is a city dandy and above all he isn’t happy that he has an affair with King’s daughter (Marion Byron). So far, it seems almost like Romeo And Juliet set in Louisiana, but then the second act is about freeing the father unjustly imprisoned, and in the third act Bill Jr. becomes a hero by saving everyone when a hurricane strikes the area.
Clearly, the plot is not a strong point of this movie. What makes this movie great is the amazing Buster Keaton who’s expressive with his whole body except for his face, always impassive. The film is basically a one man show that works from beginning to end. The sketches of the arrival at the station, the choice of the hat, him learning how to work on the boat, the prison escape… They all have perfect comic timing and are funny even today! Keaton does everything he can in this film: he jumps, falls, flies, and performs impressive and dangerous stunts firsthand. You probably have seen the scene in which a two-tons facade of a building falls on him and he gets out unharmed thanks to the only window of the wall, for example!
And then the special effects, which are obviously totally practical, are incredible: flying buildings, crumbling sets, huge constructions floating on the river… The third act is full of marvelous scenes in which I was stunned by the technicalities used ninety years ago by the movie industry. Also, some directorial choices are noteworthy: while normally the camera frames the scene as if the audience was sitting in a theater, in some cases the director, that is the directors were more creative like in the scene in which the characters look in camera as if it were a mirror, for example. And what about the scenes set in the theater destroyed by the hurricane, with Keaton revealing the secrets of the magic tricks he used to do in his tours where he staged Houdini-like shows thanks to the wisely positioned camera?
In short, this is a great film, still enjoyable, that has contributed to the history of cinema. It is certainly no coincidence that Mickey Mouse’s first animated short film came out a few months later with the title Steamboat Willie, for instance. Ciao!