Buster Keaton’s ‘Steamboat Bill, Jr.’ Is Still Painfully Funny

Buster Keaton is a thin, rigidly foolish figure, who’s liable to be clotheslined by wires or sent cartwheeling over an inconveniently placed railing in 1928’s Steamboat Bill Jr.

It’s amazing to think Buster Keaton first starred in a feature film nearly 100 years ago. That he’s still remembered today is a testament to his remarkable gifts as a physical comedian, an almost foolhardy determination to push for bigger and better stunts, and a technically innovative approach to filmmaking that saw him constantly pushing boundaries in what was then an upstart new medium.

To add to his mystique, he lived a compelling and semi-tragic off-screen life. The expensive failure of some of his later films, now considered classics, saw him stripped of creative freedom. An already fragile figure in many ways, he lost control of his drinking, had to declare bankruptcy, and was even briefly institutionalised.

Nowadays, with the circus surrounding his life confined to the history books, it’s Keaton’s films that remain. Periodically undergoing restoration and re-release, Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) is the latest to find its way back into the cinema, released in the UK on 18th September. Receiving only mixed notices at the time, it’s since been re-evaluated as one of his very best efforts. It certainly contains his most famous stunt: the collapse of a building façade onto Keaton, old Stoneface only managing to survive when an open window fits neatly around his immobile figure.

There’s far more to enjoy than just one stunt in this brisk and exhilarating comedy, however. Keaton is the centre of everything good. A thin, rigidly foolish figure, he’s liable to be clotheslined by wires or sent cartwheeling over an inconveniently placed railing. He uses his size to great effect, contrasting it with his character’s gruff, macho father, and the local fat cat who threatens the family business.

The business is steamboating, and it’s a competitive one. The dilapidated Stonewall Jackson, owned and run by William Canfield Sr. (Ernest Torrence) aka Steamboat Bill, used to rule the roost in quiet River Junction. Now it’s a relic, ignored in favour of a fancy new paddle steamer owned by John James King (Tom McGuire), a prosperous businessman who runs half the town. While the future appears bleak for Steamboat Bill, he does at least receive a telegram from his long-lost son, announcing his intention to visit.

Keaton’s arrival in town as William Canfield Jr., is a wonderfully controlled reveal. Having informed his father he’ll be wearing a white carnation, the older man rushes over with his first mate and eagerly grabs at every strapping young gent stepping off the train. Imagine his dismay when the locomotive pulls out leaving a small and oddly dressed man complete with pencil moustache, ukulele and checkered cap. It’s not the offspring he hoped for, nor is it the welcome Jr. expected.

Instead of a loving parental embrace, he’s met with embarrassment and barely veiled hostility. This only intensifies when his arch-rival King bursts into laughter at the very sight of Jr. Early on, Jr. endures a humiliating makeover to rid him of his dandyish ways. He’s forced into a barbershop to have his moustache removed, and then taken to a hat shop to replace his strange little beret. The latter sequence is one of the few times Keaton references his own fame. Having made the pork pie hat into a trademark, he briefly tries one on, pausing in consideration before discarding it. The whole enterprise proves fruitless when the wind whips off his new hat and he returns to wearing the cap, anyway.

After the gradual build-up, Steamboat Bill Jr. settles into a relationship triangle of sorts. The two Canfields struggle to see eye-to-eye, Steamboat Bill and King continue their rivalry, and then, as an additional spice, Jr. and King’s daughter Kitty (Marion Byron) fall in love. It’s this confusing mixture that drives much of the ensuing comedy.

Weather is the final element Keaton plays with. His battles to win over Kitty, please his father and avoid King climax in a horrific storm. Costing a fortune to construct, whole sets were specially built just to knock down in the raging gale that closes the film. It’s during this that the side of the building lands on him, but the entire sequence is choreographed down to the minutest detail. Keaton finds himself floating around in the air, stuck in a theatre, sliding into a dog shed and finally out on the river where the Stonewall Jackson is the only boat left standing (or floating, in this instance).

In our era, when insane budgets are thrown at the most average film, Steamboat Bill Jr. stands out as a prime example of how to do expensive set-pieces well. There’s no complacency in any stunt, each one carefully planned and timed to perfection, and designed to feel fresh. The finalé still manages to wow today; imagine the impact it must have had back in the late ’20s.

There are several set-ups worthy of note before the final storm, particularly an attempt to sneak onto King’s boat at night, and a deeply flawed prison break, while Keaton even makes use of his rare intertitles to slip in a gag. Hindsight is a funny thing because it now seems blindingly obvious that this is a great film. Whatever the reason for its initially damp response, at least we’ve seen sense now.

RATING 10 / 10