Mand over bord
By now Buster Keaton does not require any introduction. As this is the fifth of his movies I have already written many words about him and his filmmaking. I previously mentioned that I obtained a box set with six discs of his works and plenty of it is good. Unfortunately “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” is not top rank. It is also the last movie in the box set and so, I suspect, marks the decline of Buster Keaton.
The problem with “Steamboat Bill, Jr” is that it is not really funny. That is, not in the way his other pieces on the list are funny. For a comedy, particularly slapstick, it is critical that you laugh. I watched it second time with relatives and instead of laughing they fell asleep and I do not blame them.
The story is fine and the production of it is elaborate enough. Buster is as usual totally misplaced as a wannabe playboy returning from Boston to his father’s steamboat on the river. Flippant cloth and a little moustache may look smart on a Douglas Fairbanks, but Buster Keaton can make such a character look ridiculous when applying his deadpan demeanor, an especially since his father is a rough and self-relying man with no respect for Boston flippancy. This would or should work well, but somehow the fire is off. The fun just does not really start. Instead it just drags out. A scene where Buster has to get a new hat is marginally fun but is dragged out much longer than it can carry.
Buster’s father Steamboat Bill has a feud going with his competitor King who owns practically everything in town, including a much smarter steamboat than Bill. It is pretty clear Bill is losing that battle but stubbornness keeps him in the fight. King also has a daughter who is also back from Boston and knows Buster from there. They have a romance going to the chagrin of both fathers.
When King gets Bill’s boat condemned (which it probably should have been anyway) Bill strike up a fight and is sent to jail. At this point Bill has already given up on his son and arranged for him to go back to Boston, but now it is up to Junior to save the day.
We have an again marginally funny, but drawn out, scene with Buster trying to free his father with a hollowed out bread full of tools. They mess it up so it just results in Bill remaining behind bars and Junior placed in a hospital.
Then we have the storm. This is also the part the movie is famous for and I grant that it is very well made and include some fantastic stunts by Buster including a house falling down around him and he missing it by standing in the empty window frame when it lands. The whole place is torn to pieces and a tornado could probably not have done a better job. Certainly all of King’s operations are ruined. The only problem: it is not really funny.
Buster puts Bills boat to sea and starts saving people, the girl, King and his father, whose prison is sailing down the river and Junior is the hero of the day, Hurrah.
It really bothers me that I did not find “Steamboat Bill, Jr” funny. I really like Keaton’s stuff and he has a really expert touch with timing, not just in his own stunts, but in the pace of the movie and the comical timing of the gags. Here it felt as if his heart was not really in it and the timing was mostly off.
Keaton did not survive the sound revolution professionally so “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” became his swan song. I wish he had gone out better, but I will choose to enjoy the things that worked. Keaton as a foppish New England playboy, the amazing stunts during the storm and Keaton’s deadpan demeanor.