August 28, 2019
Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)
Grade: 56/100

Director: Buster Keaton
Stars: Buster Keaton, Ernest Torrence, Marion Byron

What it's about. Wealthy businessman King (Tom McGuire) owns much of a small town nestled on the banks of an American river. King also owns a new luxury steamboat, which has taken away all the business of rival steamboat Stonewall Jackson. The latter is owned by hulking and vivacious Bill Canfield, Sr. (Ernest Torrence). Canfield's crew consists solely of first mate Carter (Tom Lewis).

Bill's long-lost namesake son (Buster Keaton), an New England college student, arrives for a summer visit. Bill is disappointed in his undersized and clueless son, but is determined to make a man of him. Separately arriving in town for the summer is King's daughter Kitty (Marion Byron). She is an acquaintance of Canfield Jr. from college, and is delighted to see him.

Junior's nascent romance with Kitty is threatened by the rivalry between their fathers. King arranges for the arrest of Canfield, Sr. Junior attempts to free Senior from jail, but fails. Junior is also arrested, but escapes.

A freak wind storm besieges the town, blowing away many buildings. Senior's jail is pushed by the wind into the river and begins to sink. King's steamboat is also destroyed, forcing King and Kitty to swim for their lives. Newly heroic Junior manages to board the Stonewall Jackson and rescue Senior, Kitty, and King, as well as a minister who will presumably then marry Junior and Kitty.

How others will see it. Steamboat Bill, Jr. drew mixed reviews. It lost money in its initial release, due to the high production costs of the storm sequence. It was the final film for Keaton's independent company. He was obligated to sign with MGM, where his career soon floundered, though it gradually recovered decades later.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. was nonetheless influential as the basis for Mickey Mouse's short debut in Steamboat Willie. Keaton's silent features from the 1920s gradually gained an ardent following among film historians, and presently Steamboat Bill, Jr. is highly regarded. It was added to the prestigious National Film Registry in 2016.

At, the movie has a high (for a silent feature) user vote total of 12K. The user ratings are lofty at 7.9 out of 10. User reviews focus on the famous storm sequence, which has Keaton risking life and limb as houses fall around him and he is windborne from one dangerous spot into another. A veteran of slapstick comedies, Keaton did not use a stunt double. It is remarkable that he, and the supporting cast, make it through the production intact.

How I felt about it. It's all about the gags and stunts. There's no use wondering why Kitty has such an interest in dufus Junior, why Junior attempts to break Senior out of jail instead of hiring a lawyer, or how Junior transforms from an incompetent who can't keep a hat into a one-man coast guard despite scant knowledge of how to operate a steamboat. First mate Carter disappears from the movie entirely. Why does every male train passenger wear a white carnation? How can the wind push a jail intact into a river? Why is King so much older than his daughter?

A politically incorrect (by modern standards) gag has an idle black banjo player fleeing in terror after Keaton pulls himself out of the river.

The plot holes and character inconsistencies are forgiven by most viewers during the spectacular wind storm sequence. The best-known gag has the side of a house toppling over on Keaton, who survives due to fortuitous placement beneath an open window. These scenes fulfill the clich´ "worth the price of admission" but are too short to redeem the remainder of the movie, just as the exciting chariot scene in Ben-Hur (1960) doesn't make the rest of that film any less dull.