A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Steamboat Bill Jr. (Charles Reisner, 1928)


This is probably the film I'd choose for someone who has never seen Buster Keaton and wants to know what all the fuss is about. It's not as neatly paced and well-balanced between comedy and action as The General (Keaton and Clyde Bruckman, 1926), but it's non-stop funny. It contains what is perhaps Keaton's greatest gag, the scene in which the facade of a house falls around him, neatly landing with Keaton in the dead center of its open attic window. It also centers on the quintessential Keaton persona: the misfit who triumphs, stoic but determined, even in the face of parental scorn or the forces of nature, both of which supply most of the film's plot. For me, the iconic Keaton is the one who faces down the winds of a tornado, leaning in at a 45-degree angle, getting blown off his feet but rising to fight again. Of all the great comic personae, Keaton's was the most inner-directed. He never resorts to self-pity or pleads for pathos, as Chaplin sometimes did. When his father (Ernest Torrence) tries to replace his Eastern college wardrobe with something more befitting a Mississippi River steamboat captain's son, Keaton resists by slyly, repeatedly replacing the paternal choices with his own, a great crescendo of stubbornness and exasperation. Virtually all the elements of the Keaton persona are present in Steamboat Bill Jr., with one exception: the porkpie hat. But even it gets a brief cameo in a sequence in which Keaton tries on a sequence of hilariously inappropriate hats, modeling each one with the exception of the porkpie he is handed, which he rejects with disgust. (Pauline Kael suggests that Keaton parodies different movie stars of the era with each hat change, but this probably is lost on most contemporary audiences -- at least, it was on me.) Although the direction is credited to Charles Reisner and the screenplay to Carl Harbaugh, both were primarily the work of Keaton.

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