STEAMBOAT BILL JR.
Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Buster Keaton, Ernest
Torrance, Tom Lewis, Tom McGuire, Marion Byron
Director: Charles Reisner
Audio: DTS HD 5.1, Mono
Video: Full Frame 1.33:1
Features: See Review
Length: 70 Minutes
Release Date: July 6, 2010
“I'll run on this river if I'm the only passenger on the boat!”
The General is universally regarded as Buster Keaton's finest film, and I'm not one to disagree with that. But I do have to say that Steamboat Bill Jr. has always been my personal favorite. To me, this comedy is more of prime representation of what Buster Keaton was all about, from the melodramatic storyline to the incredible pratfalls and stunts, to perhaps the wildest and most jaw-dropping finales of ANY of his movies.
After the financial failure (still hard to imagine) of his favorite movie The General, Buster had been trying to make up the loss for his boss and friend Joseph Schenck, who financed his pictures. His next picture, College, was arguably his most forgettable feature from his independent years. Steamboat Bill Jr. was designed to be a little more ambitious, but still somewhat cost-conscious, and presented as a sure-fire audience pleaser that was sure to get Buster's studio back firmly in the black.
He plays William Canfield Jr., fresh out of college and coming home to a father he hadn't seen since he was a baby. Canfield Sr. (Torrance) runs a riverboat, but is facing hard times thanks to a new, more modern, and much more luxurious boat run by rich rival John King (Lewis).
The father is expecting a tall, strapping young man, but he's disappointed when he finds his son actually looks more like...well, Buster Keaton. And to make matters worse, the girl Junior has his heart set on is Kitty (Byron), who happens to be the daughter of King. This will not do.
Most of the early part of the film deals with the father trying to make the hapless son fit in, all the while forbidding him to date the daughter of his only rival. But when dad's boat gets condemned and he goes after King, he ends up in jail, forcing Willie Jr. to save the day.
That comes in the form of one of the greatest climactic sequences in Buster's career...a cyclone that rips through the town causing havoc and leading to some amazing special effects for the time, as well as arguably the most dangerous and famous stunt Keaton ever attempted...a falling house facade that lands on him while he remains safely in the small space of a window.
Originally, the finale was meant to be a flood, and all the sets and effects were designed accordingly, but news of the real flooding in the Mississippi that cost hundreds of lives made the gags seem in bad taste. Buster had no choice but to change the ending at great expense, causing the film to go over budget by a hundred grand (a ridiculous fortune in those days), and almost guaranteeing that the picture would not recoup its costs.
It would mark the end of an era. Joseph Schenck would abandon his business, and persuade Buster his best chance would be to accept a contract at MGM. An independent artist trapped in a studio system, Buster would see his creativity slowly snuffed out by an engine that had no interest in what he brought to them, but instead wanted to mold him into THEIR idea of a comedy star. The arrival of sound didn't bother Buster as much as the poor quality of movie he was forced to make time and time again. Though there would still be moments throughout the rest of his life where a bit of the old spirit broke through, it would never be the same.
Yet today, the film that ended his career as an independent stands as a testament to his unparalleled comic genius. From simple scenes like trying on hats or trying to sneak out in the middle of the night to see his girl to the complex and elaborate ones that made the hurricane sequence, Buster was in top creative form, and though it may have been the last time, he showed audiences what he was all about and what silent comedy was capable of.
Kino continues to impress me with how good vintage silent films can look on Blu-ray. In fact, I've still not gotten used to it...this is an impressive print, very clean for it's age, and very crisp and well detailed in high definition. It's all black and white; no color tinting, but the images come through with striking clarity that makes seeing a movie I've seen countless times seem brand new.
This is a decent audio offering, but not as spectacular as some of Kino's other releases. The Biograph Players' score is jaunty and appropriate, but not as dynamic or as memorable as some. There are also two alternate scores, one organ and one piano, but only the Biograph one is in DTS HD audio.
In the silent era, it was common to create two negatives during filming, and in the case of this Blu-ray, we have both versions. Usually one was for domestic and one was for international release, but no one is sure which was used for which, so the main feature is designated as the Keaton Estate version, and the alternate is the Killiam Shows archive version. If you look, you can see, some shots were the same, just with cameras placed side by side, and others show subtle differences. But the Estate print is definitely the cleaner of the two.
There is a short documentary on the film, which explains the versions a little more, a promo for Kino's new Lost Keaton set, two vintage recordings of the song “Steamboat Bill”, and a stills gallery.
Steamboat Bill Jr. is a true comic classic that is more alive and fun than ever thanks to this quality Blu-ray presentation from Kino. It may have marked the end of a major chapter in the life of Buster Keaton, but he went out with style, gusto, and laughs galore.