Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Steamboat Bill, Jr.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (Charles Reisner/Buster Keaton, 1928) Keaton's last film as an independent (before signing onto an ultimately disastrous contract with M-G-M) is a variation of "Romeo and Juliet," but instead of bickering families in Verona, Italy, it's two riverboat-owning-fathers in the city of River Junction who object to the union of William Canfield, Jr. (Keaton) and Kitty King (Marion Byron) and them finding any happiness together.

At 71 minutes, this one is feature length (for a silent film), with the story revolving around the son of "Steamboat Bill" (Ernest Torrence) coming back from college to spend time with his father, who he never knew growing up.  The rough-and-tumble paddle wheel captain is chagrined to find a slight, mustachioed ukulele player getting off the train, with the two not even recognizing each other for an entire sequence of the film. Bill's hopes of Bill, Jr. helping his lackluster boat business try to stay afloat are soon dashed, and he's even more horrified that junior is fond of the daughter of the rich man, J.J. King, who's latest venture is a fancy riverboat business that attracts riders away from his own.

The two riverboat barons try to keep the two apart, and barring that, try to sink each others' businesses.  King gets Bill's boat condemned, and the flinty steamboat captain's subsequent rage gets him incarcerated, leaving junior to try to spring his father from the grey bar hotel which ultimately fails in execution, and lands the son in the hospital.
Keaton, given a window of opportunity, bringing the house down.
Then, the winds come.  

In one of Keaton's (and cinema's) most elaborate stunt sequences, a typhoon hits River Junction wreaking havoc and destroying buildings, tossing denizens around as they scramble for shelter—all except for young Bill, still unconscious in a hospital...until there isn't one, anymore. It has been ripped from its foundation by the tornado winds that come down upon the town like a deus ex machina to bring the warring parties together in the end.  It's also one of the most elaborate of the Keaton constructions that dominate the last acts of his films, where story is abandoned and the film accelerates to its final resolution by throwing at its hero any number of hurdles and obstacles that he must dance, pivot, and somersault up, over, around and through.  
This one is a marvel, using high-powered wind machines and a massive crane, the river town is calved, halved, blown away and blown down, depending on which direction opposite to it Keaton is propelling through. Even without the abundance of splintering buildings, Keaton's stunt work (against the push of six powerful wind machines) is still thrilling to watch, as he bends, corkscrews and leans impossibly forward in an impossible effort to stay on his feet.

It's thrilling, ingenious, often surrealist stuff, even more amazing when you realize that Keaton did the stunts himself, designed the sequence and directed it, a tour de force of Nature, real and imagined, on all fronts. 

The complete film is below.

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