The capper of Buster Keaton’s final independent production, Steamboat Bill, Jr.‘s climactic cyclone sequence provides some of the most iconic images of its visionary creator, an elegant comedian whose flair for epic, stunt-laden action sequences also made him the Jackie Chan of the 1920s. Awaking in a hospital to discover that a storm has lifted the walls and roof of the building away, Keaton and his bed are blown through the streets and into a stable; in the street, he struggles headlong against the wind, crouching and leaping into it like a souped-up, literalized version of the familiar pantomime cliché; taking refuge in a theater, he eerily encounters the gaze of a ventriloquist’s dummy and the trickery of a magician’s “vanishing” platform. Most indelibly, he stands frozen, pondering his next move, as the full façade of a house topples over him, crashing with unsimulated force and sparing Keaton’s Willie Canfield as its upper window neatly and harmlessly frames him. (A spectacular refinement of an older Keaton gag, it caused his camera operator to look away in fear.) This finale, concluding with the star’s typical redemptive heroics, is among the most happily realized expressions of the central motif found amid his immaculately choreographed slapstick: a lone young man rising to battle human and natural obstacles with balletic, kinetic energy.
Steamboat Bill, Jr. also features Keaton’s strongest treatment of father-son relations, as his freshly graduated twit arrives in a Mississippi River town from Boston with a foppish mustache, beret, and ukulele, appalling his two-fisted dad Steamboat Bill (towering, flinty Ernest Torrence). The grizzled pop is in danger of losing business for his rustbucket paddleboat to the sleek new steamer of his hated rival, whose daughter happens to be Junior’s classmate and potential life-mate (16-year-old Marion Byron, peppy and cute, but sort of an afterthought compared to other love interests in Buster’s oeuvre). It’s Bill Sr.‘s efforts to masculinize his dubious heir that make up a sizable chunk of the plot, from a rapid-fire store scene where Keaton reacts to being lidded with a dozen hats—including a glimpse of his otherwise absent trademark porkpie—to slovenly Dad’s slow burn when the lad boards his boat for work, snappily outfitted like an officer of the Titanic. In the film’s most sustained comic set piece before the windstorm, Willie attempts to smuggle a saw via a loaf of bread to his jailed father, and the series of gags and reversals finds Bill walking back into custody in solidarity with his son. The familial theme is never heavy-handed, but has an affecting emotional undertow.
If Steamboat Bill, Jr. is Class 1A among Keaton’s prime work rather than top-shelf (like his previous seacraft-set The Navigator), its concluding 15-minute showstopper is a high watermark in imaginative, exhilarating entertainment. Audiences or lone viewers are more apt to open their mouths in astonishment than laughter, both at the audacious stuntwork and the odd, forbidding universe created by this placid, soon-to-decline Kansas vaudevillian. The picture, like his even larger-scale Civil War adventure The General two years earlier, was a box office flop, and Keaton’s move to MGM the following year meant a loss of control over his work, but the first dozen years of his filmmaking career produced uncannily conjured works by an artist with few peers in American cinema.
No digital cleanup was done to either version of the film, but the primary edition looks fine aside from some frames that nearly flash white, perhaps accentuated by the dominance of sunny location shots as opposed to the more classical, ambitious visuals seen in Kino's remastering of The General. The image is black and white per the lack of any evidence that it had ever been tinted for projection. Three scores are supplied for the feature, and a new one by the Biograph Players trio is the one to listen to, in surround or 2.0 stereo, though the mono piano and organ tracks have their charms.
The most significant supplement comprises the second disc of the set: an alternate version of Steamboat Bill, Jr., made up of varying camera angles and different takes, from the Killiam Shows Archive. It was a common practice in the silent era to shoot two negatives of a film, and while this edition is distinct from the Keaton estate cut on the first disc, the image is more unstable and rougher, so its value is limited to curiosity except for fanatics, particularly since the differences are tough to spot unless the two editions are viewed side by side. Such a comparison is featured in a short documentary on the film's making, written and narrated by disc producer Bret Wood. The film's significance as a crossroads in its star's career is recalled, along with the change of its climax from a catastrophic flood to a cyclone after hundreds were killed by rising waters in Mississippi in 1927; Keaton wrote in his memoirs that "we settled for a hurricane as a more restful type of calamity." Two vintage recordings of the 1910 folk song "Steamboat Bill" are included, as are a gallery of stills and a minute-long montage of Buster's pratfalls.
Against the wind and the death throes of silent comedy, Keaton stands tall.