Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)

Buster Keaton, Tom McGuire, Ernest Torrence, Tom Lewis,
Steamboat Bill, Jr. is a movie starring Buster Keaton, Tom McGuire, and Ernest Torrence. The effete son of a cantankerous riverboat captain comes to join his father's crew.
  • 7.9 /10.0 IMDB Rating:
  • DatePublished:
  • 2018-09-07 Added:
  • Carl Harbaugh, Writer:
  • Charles Reisner, Director:
  • Producer:
10 / 10

The whole Keaton kaboodle

Buster Keaton was a lunatic. He had to have been. The stunts he was able to pull off in this movie leave me questioning his sanity. This film has moments where you won't believe his stunts weren't done via some nifty camera forgery. It's just amazing that his stunts were accomplished while one camera(yes, just one) was aimed at a spot that was marked for Buster to hit. This precision had to be met or death and disaster could follow. This was most apparent in the cyclone scene with the wall of a house that fell to the ground. Any deviation by an inch from the mark and a house could fall on top of Buster's head. I had to watch that scene over and over again. This film is filled with great gymnastics from Buster, as he did hit all of his marks. Although this movie has some of Buster's best comedic gymnastics, there are a couple of memorable scenes of pantomime. There's the scene near the beginning of the film when Buster is trying on an array of hats for his father. Buster looks right into the camera as if looking into a mirror, just a great effect. And later there's another scene where Buster tries to break his father out of jail by pantomiming the instructions of escape by using only his hands and a loaf of bread. By the end of the film you'll be marveling at Buster's dexterity while he operates the steamboat by climbing up and over or jumping down and around the ship, running the ship by himself and with the help of a few helpfully placed ropes. This movie has it all for Buster fans. 10/10.

Clark Richards

8 / 10

That Hurricane Scene Blew Me Away!

Reading the back of the video or DVD case can be misleading as it made this movie to be one in which Buster learns from his dad the ropes of running of steamboat. Well, in the end it looks like he did just that, but his "training" was about less than a minute in this 71-minute film.

The rest of the movie is about other things, such as Buster - reunited with a Dad who never knew him - meeting his father, getting a new outfit (especially a different hat), beginning a romance with the daughter of the competing steamboat operator, later trying to get his father out of jail, on and on.

The part that makes this one of the more memorable silent films of all time is the hurricane segment near the end. There are some amazing scenes in that, including a very famous one in which an entire side of house falls on Buster, who escapes without injury because an open door on the house is exactly where Keaton is standing. He had not been exactly on the right mark, the famous comedian could have been seriously injured in that stunt. The man had guts, that's for sure.

Anyway, our hero does show in the end that he learned a few things about navigating the boat as he rescues all the major characters following the hurricane. Great stuff and a suspenseful finish.

8 / 10

The Adventures of Steamboat Billy

STEAMBOAT BILL JR. (United Artists, 1928), directed by Charles F. Reisner, stars Buster Keaton in his third independent production following THE GENERAL (1926) and COLLEGE (1927), his most effective and daring, as well as a premise that personifies him best. It is a fine character study as well, and since Keaton is quite a character, the role he plays is that of a weakling of a son who tries to impress his burly, strong-willed father, wonderfully played by veteran actor Ernest Torrence.

Story: Set in River Junction, Mississippi, William Canfield (Torrence), better known as "Steamboat Bill," owns a riverboat called "The Stonewall Jackson." He has a rival, John James King (Tom Maguire), a wealthy citizen, who attempts to cause Bill's financial ruin with his new river packet called "King" after himself. Canfield receives a telegram from Boston that his son, whom he hasn't seen since he was a baby, is arriving in town by train. Excited about the union, he is soon disappointed when he finds Bill Canfield Jr. (Buster Keaton) not to be the physical built of himself but a weakling sporting checkered clothes and beret, a mustache and playing a ukulele. Also returning home to River Junction is Mary (Marion Byron), King's daughter, whom Bill has already met while attending college. Because Bill and Mary love one another and Canfield and King have become rivals, the fathers attempt to keep these two apart.

A story with enough ingredients for comedy. With the love plot resembling that of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," there is no tragedy involved, but methods of the youths trying to get together at times without the knowledge of their feuding fathers. Scenes involving the meek Keaton and the rugged Torrence are extremely funny, their introduction being with Torrence at the train station to meet the son he hasn't seen in years, to be identified with a carnation, only to find practically every man at the station is wearing one. The element of surprise in finding his son not to be what's expected has been reworked numerous times on screen, the most famous being Universal's comedy-western, DESTRY RIDES AGAIN (1939), where the eagerly awaited sheriff believed to be a strong physical type only to arrive in town only to be a "horse of a different color" (James Stewart). Like Stewart's character, Keaton is considered a fool by many, but on the contrary, he's the opposite, in fact, intelligent when intelligence is needed, especially when it comes to rescuing his father from drowning in a jail cell during a flood that nearly has water covering over his head. Other scenes worth mentioning include father taking son by the hand like a small child to the barber shop to eliminate his mustache, and later to the clothing store where father attempts to change son's image into something more manly. But the high point is that of natural disasters of cyclone and flood that nearly wipes away the town, with the confused Bill actually becoming the hero during all this confusion, leading to the most celebrated scene where Keaton is seen standing in an empty street staring at the damaged surroundings, with the entire facade of a house falling down on him, with the open window frame of the house passing safely over his body, leaving him unharmed. A very dangerous stunt, which might have proved fatal, done without the technology of special effects or computers nearly succeeds in outshining Harold Lloyd's thrill comedies of the day. This alone needs to be seen to be believed. Even when all this is over, there are even more elements of surprises. Watch for them.

STEAMBOAT BILL JR. was introduced to public television around 1983 as part of a weekly series known as SPROCKETS, accompanied by a standard piano score. Later revived to cable television, it was then seen on American Movie Classics starting in 1995 where it was part of that station's annual film preservation series, and ending its run there in 1999. The movie was later presented on Turner Classic Movies in 2001 where it is played as part of its "Silent Sunday Nights." Initially accompanied with an excellent piano score by William Perry from the Paul Killiam collection, TCM sadly discontinued using this print in December 2004 in favor of a restored copy (which is fine) accompanied by scoring that happens to be one the worst ever composed for a silent movie. A pity because STEAMBOAT BILL Jr. is such a fine and exciting comedy, worthy to film students to studying the art and genius of Buster Keaton. Fortunately someone must have been in agreement with the bad scoring considering a new organ score was used in a crisp pint that aired June 21, 2005. Though scoring for STEAMBOAT BILL Jr. has varied in either VHS or DVD formats over the years, personally, the William Perry piano accompaniment is the best of its kind.

The last true Buster Keaton classic from the silent era, and surprisingly something that didn't do financially well when distributed in theaters. In fact, it's been said that United Artists withheld its release for almost a year. Today STEAMBOAT BILL Jr. is critically acclaimed and hailed as one of Keaton's masterpieces, a notch below THE GENERAL but an improvement over COLLEGE. Thanks to television revivals and video/DVD, Buster Keaton comedies such as this should never go out of style. (***)

7 / 10

Simple story with INCREDIBLY DANGEROUS physical comedy

This was the last of Buster Keaton's "Big 3" movies - "College", "The General" and "Steamboat Bill, Jr." In my opinion, all three should be seen to be believed. There never has been, nor will ever be, another actor who did his own death-defying stunts that had such skill as an actor to carry an entire picture by himself. Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. was considered a legend of physical prowess. I'd match Buster up against him any day of the week. Jackie Chan is the closest thing we have today to doing his own death-defying stunt work. But even Jackie would never dream of pulling off the most dangerous work as Buster. To this day, people still marvel at the physicality of the tiny Keaton.

My order of preference for story-telling of these three is: General, College, and Steamboat Bill. My order of preference for death-defying feats is: Steamboat Bill, General and College in that order.

"Steamboat Bill, Jr." is not the most creative at story-telling. Basically it's plot device after plot device to move Buster to and from one dangerous stunt to the next more dangerous stunt. How he pulls this off with such ease is still a marvel. And the comedy from "Ol' Stoneface" is still funny today. The hat-switch scene where Buster and his father go through a series of hats while Buster looks right at the camera as though it is the mirror is comedy brilliance. In all of Buster's best comedies, he figures out how to maneuver huge objects through the funniest and most insanely difficult ways possible - trains in "The General", a crew boat in "College", and he maneuvers a really large steamboat with only an insanely simple yet complex set of ropes in "Steamboat Bill, Jr.". Just watch Buster shimmy down FIVE levels of the boat to basically shake hands, only to shimmy BACK UP those same five levels in mere seconds. It is astonishing the athleticism and creativity he could pull off in one single, UNEDITED scene shot with only one camera. Astounding.

The supporting cast is mainly there as foils for Buster's laughs. However, Marion Byron (a mere 16 at the time of filming) is wonderful as the dainty love interest in this Romeo & Juliet story between feuding river boats. It is decently acted by all involved but this is Buster's show and everyone knows it.

The ultimate payoff is in the dramatic and DANGEROUS hurricane that hits the tiny town in the finale. There is a reason that ONLY Buster is in all the scenes in the hurricane. Nobody else would be crazy enough to be caught dead in something like that simply for a movie. It's borderline suicidal actually. They blow up an ENTIRE town right in front of our eyes using six jet engines creating a wind storm so strong Buster could literally lean at a 45-degree angle into the wind and not fall. In several scenes, there is only one take because once the building explodes into a pile of kindling within inches of the real-life Buster they can't rebuild it. For him to keep a stoneface when the world is physically demolished right in front of him, and he keeps acting in the midst of all that chaos... My mind can't fathom that kind of bravery from a screen legend.

I can reasonably believe that by today's standards, the insurance companies would NEVER allow the stunts Buster Keaton pulled off in this story. Simply breathtaking isn't a strong enough word. DEATH-DEFYING is the only word that can be used for the now-legendary scene of a wall collapsing all around Buster, save for a lone open window that saves Buster from certain death. It is said that half the crew stayed away from the set that day simply because they couldn't watch Buster die in real-life from that wall in the event Buster was only a couple inches from his mark and the stunt went horribly wrong. He would have been crushed without a doubt. How many movies have ever done something as dangerous around their major star simply for a scene in a movie? I can say without equivocation - none. Watch and rewind that scene - I promise you won't believe what you see. The weight of that wall is not break-away kindling. It is a SOLID wall of bricks and mortar weighing at least a few thousand pounds. When it SLAMS into the ground around Buster, you see what damage would have been done to him had it hit him. But as you rewind the tape, watch Buster through the entire sequence in slow-motion. You will see that he NEVER FLINCHES!!! I read that he was having a really bad day in his personal life that day but this is unreasonably suicidal as a scene. It is legendary for a reason. There will never be anything like it again.

Buster made the impossible seem routine. He was just a little feather being brutally tossed all over that town from one dangerous stunt to another. If you can't see true genius in his timing and physical superiority, you are missing a once-in-a-century entertainer.

Buster Keaton was a national treasure. His "Big 3" movies need to be in the Smithsonian for many millennia. That way, in a thousand years when our society is viewed by that generation, I hope they view Buster's movies and see what the best of us looked like at one time. He is my favorite silent movie comedian, with Harold Lloyd a distant second and Charlie Chaplin third. But nobody touched Buster. He's my hero.

As a movie, the story is maybe a 5 for it's simplicity. As a study of physical comedy and dangerous stunts, this is a 50 out of 10. Thank you, Buster. You are missed.

7 / 10

Amazing Storm Sequence

In the riverside town of River Junction, Captain William Canfield (Ernest Torrence) has an old steamship and disputes the passengers with the powerful banker John James King (Tom McGuire), who has a brandy new passenger vessel. William is informed that his unknown son William Canfield Jr. (Buster Keaton) will arrive by train from Boston to visit him. When Willie arrives, William trains him to work with him in his ship. However, Willie meets his friend Marion King (Marion Byron), the daughter of James King, and they date each other, against the will of their fathers. When a hurricane reaches River Junction, Willie rescues his father and his future father-in-law from the river.

"Steamboat Bill Jr." has a silly but funny beginning, and an amazing hurricane sequence, with very bold scenes. The timing and the physical capability of Buster Keaton are very impressive, and in the present days it is impossible to imagine shooting the scenes in the storm without the use of computer, so convincing they still are. From his biography, I have seen that he died of lung cancer, not in an accident as I might guess, meaning that he has survived to his risky scenes usual in most of his films. My vote is eight.

Title (Brazil): "Marinheiro de Encomenda" ("Sailor by Order")